In April 2010, Raquel Nelson's 4-year-old son A.J. was killed when he darted into traffic as they were crossing a busy road. Unbelievably, Nelson was convicted of misdemeanor jaywalking charges that could have put her behind bars for three years, longer than the time served by the hit-and-run driver who killed her son. Thankfully, at her sentencing today a judge acted with the sanity and compassion that other law enforcement officials lacked.
Nelson says that while heading home with her three children one night, she decided to cross the five-lane street where the bus let them off rather than walking three-tenths of a mile to the nearest crosswalk. The family made it to the meridian, but then A.J. and her daughter ran out into the street. The Associated Press reports:
The driver, Jerry Guy, pleaded guilty to hit-and-run. According to court records, he had been drinking earlier in the day while taking pain medication, was partially blind in one eye, and had two previous hit-and-run convictions from 1997.
Guy was sentenced to five months in prison, but only wound up serving six months. Meanwhile, Nelson was charged with misdemeanor vehicular homicide, failing to cross at a crosswalk, and reckless conduct.
It's highly unusual for prosecutors to charge a grieving parent for a child's accidental death, but apparently they felt they needed to make an example of Nelson, because losing a child isn't quite horrible enough. Nelson could have been sentenced to 36 months in jail, one year for each charge, though prosecutors didn't recommend jail time — just probation on top of a harrowing trial.
The case provoked outrage around the country, and several groups, including the Georgia NAACP branch, defended Nelson. Today Judge Kathryn Tanksley sided with Nelson's many supporters, sentencing her to only a year of probation and 40 hours of community service, and making the unusual offer of a new trial. After the verdict Nelson told reporters, "I'm ready to go home, I'm walking out of here. I don't feel like I can be more satisfied." Her lawyer said later that she plans to accept the judge's offer for a new trial.
Sally Flocks, founder of the Atlanta pedestrian advocacy group PEDS, says the entire case was,
"really cruel and a big waste of taxpayer money. What is anybody going to learn from this? Raquel lost her precious son. The lesson she learned already is quit using transit and buy a car to get around. It's too dangerous to cross the streets here."
Of course, plenty of citizens can't afford a car, but maybe that's the only practical solution. Officials could have used A.J.'s tragic death to push to make roads safer for pedestrians, but instead they chose to punish his mom even more.