Nelms petitions for support

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 17, 2003

Suffolk News-Herald

Robert E. Nelms, a former delegate of the 76th District, which includes Suffolk, is circulating petitions to gain support for his bid for the clerk of the court. That seat will be vacated when Court Clerk Henry C. Murden retires in November.

Nelms, who confirmed the petition effort, but declined to be interviewed for this story, was charged with indecent exposure in an incident in Richmond’s Byrd Park in 1996 while serving in the General Assembly.


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A native of Suffolk with deep family roots here, Nelms tried to avoid prosecution by invoking a defense called &uot;legislative immunity.&uot;

Richmond police records show that Nelms was issued a summons by Detective Eric B. Tignor at around 5:50 p.m. Nelms was carrying no identification when he was arrested.

Nelms told the Democratic and Republican caucuses that he’d only stepped off a path along Pump House Road, a tree-lined, secluded area just off Byrd Park, to urinate after &uot;listening to the (James) river for a while.&uot; He made the statements in an apology for any embarrassment he’d brought to the General Assembly.

Following the media blitz surrounding the arrest, Nelms, then 36, insisted that he’d been subjected to a &uot;statewide lynching.&uot; He wrote an open letter to the News-Herald, pledging that he would continue to fight the charge and saying that he’d done nothing more than what thousands of others do when forced to answer &uot;nature’s call.&uot;

Nelms, married with one son, also wrote in his letter that his actions were not those of a criminal but of a man. &uot;You be the judge,&uot; he wrote.

That April, Nelms again wrote to his constituents telling them, &uot;I wish I could say this in a dignified manner, but I cannot. Ladies and gentlemen, in a private place, I took a leak behind a fence, in the woods by the river.&uot;

In May 1996, Nelms hired a private polygraph operator and took a lie detector test, then went on the record to say he’d passed. He then refused to release the nature of the questions put to him.

After five months of trying to squelch innuendos and proclaim his innocence, Nelms pleaded guilty to the charge, all the while enduring ridicule. When the case went to trial, he called himself a &uot;poor country boy from Suffolk.&uot;

At his sentencing, Nelms received 30 days jail time, which was suspended on condition that he did not violate probation. He was, however, banned from Richmond’s parks.

At the time of his troubles Nelms was an environmental consultant, elected to the House of Delegates in 1992.

If Nelms does garner enough support to run for clerk of the court, he’s up against four other opponents including Suffolk native W. Randolph Carter Jr., an assistant commonwealth’s attorney who announced his candidacy in January, shortly after 83-year-old Murden said he was retiring after 51 years of service to Suffolk’s court system.

Barbara Xenakis Gayle, a resident of Sadler Heights, announced March 8 that she is a candidate. She is an assistant to Portsmouth’s chief deputy Commonwealth’s attorney. Johnnie F. Edwards announced his candidacy in April. A native of Suffolk, Edwards serves as the assistant principal at S.P. Morton Middle School in Franklin.

T. Kirk Pretlow, another Suffolk native, tossed his hat into the ring May 14. He is a partner with Pretlow and Pretlow P.C. and comes from a family of attorneys.