Education and early career
Nelson grew up in central Minnesota, the eldest of five children. After receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota in 1975, she spent two years as a social worker in Warren, Minnesota, followed by three years licensing day care facilities at the Minnesota Department of Public Welfare in St. Paul. In 1981 she enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School, where she became president of the school's Law Review, and received her Juris Doctor degree in 1984. In 1985 she worked as a law clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit.
In 1986 Nelson joined the Washington, D.C. law firm of Wilmer Cutler and Pickering as a junior associate. A few months later she accepted a pro bono assignment from the Florida Office of the Capital Collateral Representative (CCR) to assist in efforts to stay Ted Bundy's imminent execution on multiple murder convictions. Although she had no previous first-hand experience in criminal law or the appeals process, she and co-counsel James Earl Coleman, Jr. were able to secure three stays before Bundy was finally executed on January 24, 1989.
Nelson was terminated by Wilmer Cutler a few months after Bundy's execution. Bundy's defense had cost the firm, it claimed, in excess of $1.5 million. According to this source, the $1.5 million figure was based not on actual dollar expenditures, but on the estimated amount Nelson and Coleman would have earned for the firm had they been representing paying clients. In 1989 she was appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Parole, and later served as general counsel at Adcom Worldwide and legal counsel/privacy officer at Computer Network Technology.
Book and plagiarism litigation
In 1994, Nelson's book Defending the Devil: My Story as Ted Bundy's Last Lawyer was published by William Morrow & Company. In addition to a detailed description of the appeals, motions, and other legal maneuvers that were employed in the attempt to save her client from the electric chair, Nelson describes her own intellectual and emotional development during that three-year period. There is also a summary of the efforts made by Bundy and various psychiatrists to explain why he did what he did. Nelson's account later engendered harsh criticism from Michael Mello, the CCR attorney who originally sought outside help in filing Bundy's appeals. "Sending Bundy's case from CCR was one of the worst decisions I've made as a deathworker", he wrote.
In 1995 Nelson filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against novelist John Grisham and his publisher Doubleday for copyright infringement. She alleged that Grisham's book, The Chamber, "blatantly appropriated central themes, plot twists, characters and descriptive details" from Defending the Devil. In 1996 Judge Royce Lamberth dismissed the suit, calling the charges "meritless". A year later, the U.S. Court of Appeals unanimously dismissed Nelson's appeal, noting that it "does not warrant an opinion". Nelson was ordered to pay attorneys' fees for both parties.
- Nelson 1994, p. 9
- Kramer, Victor H. (1995). Defending the Devil: My Story as Ted Bundy's Last Lawyer (review). Constitutional Commentary, Spring, 1995
- Nelson 1994, pp. 13-15
- Nelson 1994, p. 10
- Dezern, Craig; Roy, Roger; Date, Shirish (January 23, 1989). Bundy prays and reads Bible. Killer records a message to be heard after his death. Orlando Sentinel
- Caudwell, Sarah (August 21, 1994). What Is a Lawyer's Duty? : For three years, attorney Polly Nelson dedicated herself to attempts to save Ted Bundy's life. Los Angeles Times
- Review: Defending the Devil: Kirkus Reviews archive Retrieved September 9, 2011
- IAPP (January 2010). Congratulations, Certified Professionals! The Privacy Advisor
- Staff report (July 4, 1994). Defending the Devil: My Story as Ted Bundy's Last Lawyer (review). Publishers Weekly
- Nelson, Polly (1994). Defending the Devil: My Story as Ted Bundy's Last Lawyer. New York: William Morrow. ISBN 978-0-688-10823-6.
- Mello, Michael A. (1997). Dead Wrong: A Death Row Lawyer Speaks Out Against Capital Punishment. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-15344-4. p. 97
- Torry, Saundra (June 19, 1995). Fact, Fiction and Fairness: The Copyright Wars Surge. Washington Post
- Owens, John B. (2000). Grisham's Legal Tales: A Moral Compass for the Young Lawyer. 48 UCLA L. Rev. 1431 (2000-2001)
- Grisham Plagiarism Suit Dismissed (Oct 20, 1997). Publishers Weekly archive Retrieved September 10, 2011
- Kelly, Keith J. (October 10, 1997). Suit Doesn't Fit Grisham. New York Daily News