A.J. Nelson A.J.Nelson

A.J. was only 4 years old when he was on his way home with his mother and 2 sisters. They had just stepped off of the public transportation bus. Instead of using a crosswalk the family illegally jaywalked across the busy street with others doing the same thing. While crossing the street A.J. his mother and one of his sisters were hit by a van. His sister and his mother only had minor injuries but A.J. was killed. The driver hit them and did not stop. It was later found he had been drinking, was on pain medication, was blind in one eye and even had 2 previous hit and runs. The driver would only do a measly 6 months in jail. A.J.’s mother on the other hand was facing up to 3 years in jail for the jaywalking. The driver only did about 6 months before being released. He only did a two-year prison sentence but was released in less than a year for the two previous hit and runs.

 

 

Grieving Mother Faces 36 Months In Jail For Jaywalking After Son Is Killed By Hit-And-Run Driver
Posted: 7/21/11 02:01 PM ET

On April 10, 2010, Raquel Nelson lost her 4-year-old son. Nelson was crossing a busy Marietta, Georgia, street with her son and his two siblings when they were struck by a hit-and-run driver. Police were able to track down the driver, Jerry Guy, who later admitted he had been drinking and had taken painkillers the night of the accident. He was also mostly blind in one eye. Guy had already been convicted of two prior hit-and-runs. He pleaded guilty, served six months of his five-year sentence, and was released last October.

If it ended there, this story would merely be tragic. But it gets worse. Last week Nelson herself was convicted on three charges related to her son's death: reckless conduct, improperly crossing a roadway and second-degree homicide by vehicle. Each is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 12 months in prison. Nelson could spend up to six times as many months in jail as the man who struck her son and then fled the scene. Nelson's crime: jaywalking.

Nelson had taken her children with her to shop for groceries and supplies for her upcoming birthday party. The working mother and college student regularly took public transportation, but she and her kids missed their intended bus that night, putting them an hour behind schedule. The bus they caught pulled up to their stop after nightfall, and Nelson stepped off, clutching her kids' hands through the shopping bags wrapped around her wrists. Nelson's apartment complex sits across the street from the bus stop, but the nearest crosswalk is three-tenths of a mile away. So Nelson did what everyone who uses that bus stop does, and what the other disembarking passengers all did that night: She crossed one side of the divided highway to the median, where she waited for a break in the traffic.

Several people then crossed the street before Nelson thought it was safe. She waited with her kids. But when others started to move towards the road, Nelson's son must taken it as a cue it was time to go. She felt his grip on her hand loosen and he darted out into the road. She followed. Guy's car struck Nelson, her son and her daughter, and the boy died.

Over the next month, as Guy was processed by Georgia's criminal justice system, Nelson buried and grieved for her son. But on May 14, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran a long story under the headline, "Jaywalkers take deadly risks." The article mentioned Nelson and her son, pointing out that she hadn't been charged with any crime. Three days later, the Georgia Solicitor General's office charged Nelson with the three misdemeanors.

Nelson was convicted last week, and she'll be sentenced on July 26.

Nelson, a black woman, was convicted by an all-white jury. She relies on public transportation; she is a pedestrian in a car-oriented Atlanta suburb. During jury questioning, none of the jurors who would eventually convict Nelson raised their hands when asked if they relied on public transportation. Just one juror admitted to ever having ridden a public bus, though in response to a subsequent question, a few said they'd taken a bus to Braves games.

 

According to the Daily Mail, other tenants in Nelson's apartment complex had complained to the city about their difficulties getting home from the bus stop. The Transportation in America blog shows a photo of the stretch of highway where Nelson crossed as evidence city planners are guilty of "poor planning and dangerous designs."

No one forced Raquel Nelson to jaywalk the night of her son's death. The suggestion here isn't that the city owes Nelson anything for the consequences of her actions. But there is something to be said for designing cities with an eye toward how people actually behave, not how urban planners wish they would. Putting a bus stop in the middle of a busy highway, three-tenths of a mile away from the nearest crosswalk -- while zoning for apartments and businesses on the other side of the same street -- is poor planning.

But it's really the decision to prosecute Nelson that's outrageous. That the state can prosecute someone doesn't mean that it should. And it seems that a little empathy would be in order here.

Prosecutors have a great deal of discretion over when to bring charges, and over what charges they bring. If those in the office of Solicitor General Barry Morgan are charging Nelson to punish her for her jaywalking, they're misguided -- it's hard to conceive of a more potent punishment than the loss of a child. If their aim was to make an example of a devastated mother to prevent others from jaywalking, they're delusional.

But this isn't even the first time they've done it. According to the Journal-Constitution, in 2010, Morgan's office charged another woman whose child was struck and killed while the two were jaywalking.

A recent Pro Publica/Frontline investigation found prosecutors seem especially prone to find criminality -- then over-charge once they do -- in instances of child death, even when the evidence suggests the death was an accident.

Earlier this month, I wrote a column criticizing the so-called Caylee's Law, the bill sweeping state legislatures across the country in response to the Casey Anthony verdict. I mentioned a number of scenarios in which innocent parents or caretakers might be prosecuted under the law. The response from the law's supporters was that a prosecutor would never charge a grieving parent under those circumstances. This case shows that such prosecutions can and do certainly happen.

There are nearly always strong incentives for prosecutors to over-charge defendants. Prosecutors receive praise, and are reelected and promoted based on their ability to win convictions. They're rarely punished or held accountable for over-charging, or committing misconduct en route to a conviction. They're also rarely praised or credited when they decline to bring charges in the interest of justice.

There are a couple of solutions here. Lawmakers should anticipate ways laws might be abused or misapplied -- even in scenarios that seem unlikely -- and craft laws in ways that minimize the chance that they'll be abused. The justice system should not rely on the goodwill of prosecutors.

Another solution: We need to start holding prosecutors accountable for bringing unjust charges like those brought against Nelson -- even if they may technically be legally permissible.

In nearly all jurisdictions, "prosecutor" is a political position. That means voters can realign the incentives. If Cobb County residents want to make it clear that the prosecution of Raquel Nelson is an abuse of power and a waste of resources, they could let Solicitor General Barry Morgan know, both now and next Election Day.

 

By Scott Stump
TODAY.com contributor
updated 7/27/2011 9:26:02 AM ET 2011-07-27T13:26:02
Font: +-Raquel Nelson will not be going to jail — at least not anytime soon.

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 The single mother from Marietta, Ga., who potentially faced more prison time for jaywalking than the man convicted for the hit-and-run accident that killed her 4-year-old son, was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and 12 months probation in Cobb County State Court, but then also given the option of a new trial in an unusual decision.

“One year probation, it was better than jail time, of course,” a relieved Nelson told Ann Curry in an exclusive live interview Wednesday. “I was just happy to be walking out of the courtroom.”

“I'm not familiar with this ever happening,“ Nelson’s attorney, David Savoy, told NBC News regarding the option for a new trial. But, he added, “I was very pleased with the decision and I think she [the judge] made the right decision.”

Nelson put her feelings about the judge more directly to Curry Wednesday: “When she said what she said, it was a relief. I probably could have kissed her.”

Whether Nelson will accept the option of the new trial was less clear. Asked by Curry if she wanted the opportunity to clear her record, Nelson said: “We’re weighing our options right now. There’s a part of me that doesn't really want to go through it again, but by the same token, I'll look at it and say, ‘You know, if I've done it once, if that's the greater purpose, then I'll do it again.” Nelson said that she has 30 days to decide whether to accept the option of a new trial.

Several witnesses spoke on Nelson's behalf at the sentencing, and numerous supportive emails were presented. Her situation also galvanized the online community: A petition posted on change.org asking that she not receive any jail time received more than 140,000 signatures in 48 hours.

In the courtroom, Nelson's therapist, one of her children's teachers, and her brother spoke about her care for her children and her family, causing Nelson to dab her tear-filled eyes. Letters from her father, her boss, and a staff member at Chattahoochee Tech, where she is a student, were all read. Emails and letters from local citizens were also presented, and the judge indicated that she had personally received emails of support as well.

On July 12, Nelson was convicted of second-degree vehicular homicide, reckless conduct, and failure to use a crosswalk during an incident that occurred on the night of April 10, 2010. She and her three children had gotten off at a bus stop in Marietta, and were trying to cross a four-lane highway without using a crosswalk in order to reach their apartment.

Jerry Guy, a man who had two prior hit-and-run convictions, struck the family with his van as they were crossing, killing 4-year-old A.J. Nelson in the process. Guy served a six-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to a hit-and-run and was released on Oct. 29. He is currently serving five years of probation. Nelson could have been sentenced to up to 36 months in jail.

‘No sympathy’
“I’ve had to accept that he’s gotten six months,’’ Nelson told Ann Curry in a live interview on TODAY Monday. “There’s nothing I can do about it. Even though he has had a history of it, I know that nobody gets up that day and says, ‘I’m going to kill a 4-year-old.’

“I’ve had to forgive that portion of it. However, I think to come after me so much harder than they did him, it’s a slap in the face. This will never end for me.’’

“Miss Nelson was shown no sympathy whatsoever by the system,’’ attorney Mark Schwartz told NBC News. “This will live with her forever.’’

 TODAY
Nelson and her younger daughter suffered minor injuries in the accident, while her older daughter was unhurt. Through his lawyer, Guy admitted at the time to having consumed alcohol earlier in the day while also on pain medication. Guy also is also partially blind in one eye, and had two prior hit-and-run convictions on his record that both occurred on Feb. 17, 1997. He received a two-year prison sentence but was released in less than a year for those convictions.

 According to news reports, residents of Nelson’s apartment complex had previously complained to the city about the difficulty of getting home from the bus stop. The nearest crosswalk from the bus stop was nearly three-tenths of a mile away, so like many others who regularly use public transportation in that area, Nelson crossed to the center median with her children. After several others had crossed the other two lanes to reach the other side of the highway, she followed with her children while clutching grocery bags. A.J. was then fatally struck by Guy’s van.

“It is her fault and it is his fault, but at the same time she’s suffered such a great loss, so I just don’t see what putting her in prison is going to do,’’ Michael Johnson, one of Nelson’s neighbors, told NBC News.

During jury questioning for Nelson’s trial, when members of the jury that would eventually convict her were asked if any of them relied on public transportation, no one raised their hand. A handful admitted to occasionally taking the bus to go to Atlanta Braves games.

“I don’t think they could relate to what I was going through,’’ Nelson said. “All stated that they’ve never ridden public transportation and they’ve never really been in my shoes, so I think there was maybe not a jury of my peers.’’

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