The Streets and the Courts Failed Raquel Nelson. Can Advocacy Save Her?

This photo shows the bus stop on Austell Road and the path taken by Raquel Nelson to get to her apartment complex across the street. No marked crossings are visible in the photo. Source: ##http://t4america.org/blog/2011/07/18/prosecuting-the-victim-absolving-the-perpetrators/##T4America##

Last week, we reported on the horrific story of Raquel Nelson, whose four-year-old son was killed as she attempted to cross the street with him to reach their home. Nelson was convicted of reckless conduct, improperly crossing a roadway and second-degree homicide by vehicle — all for the crime of being a pedestrian in the car-centric Atlanta suburbs. The conviction carried a sentence of up to 36 months. Meanwhile, the driver who killed Nelson’s son — who’d been drinking and using painkillers before getting behind the wheel — got off with six months on a hit-and-run charge.

Many of you responded with outrage. The more information that came out, the more outrageous the charges against Nelson became. From an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story that came out the month after the incident:

On April 10, she and her three children — Tyler, 9, A.J., 4, and Lauryn, 3 — went shopping because the next day was Nelson’s birthday. They had pizza, went to Wal-Mart and missed a bus, putting them an hour late getting home. Nelson, a student at Kennesaw State University, said she never expected to be out after dark, especially with the children.

When the Cobb County Transit bus finally stopped directly across from Somerpoint Apartments, night had fallen. She and the children crossed two lanes and waited with other passengers on the raised median for a break in traffic. The nearest crosswalks were three-tenths of a mile in either direction, and Nelson wanted to get her children inside as soon as possible. A.J. carried a plastic bag holding a goldfish they’d purchased.

“One girl ran across the street,” Nelson said. “For some odd reason, I guess he saw the girl and decided to run out behind her. I said, ‘Stop, A.J.,’ and he was in the middle of the street so I said keep going. That’s when we all got hit.”

Look at all the ways the design of the city’s transportation system failed Nelson and her family. Bus service runs once an hour. There is no crosswalk to connect a bus stop with an apartment building it serves – nor any crosswalk for three blocks. A convicted hit-and-run driver who is half-blind and has alcohol and pain-killers in his system is considered less of a threat to the public than a woman who rides the bus and walks with her kids.

The deck was stacked against Nelson and her family on the streets — and at her trial too, as Radley Balko wrote in the Huffington Post.

“During jury questioning, none of the jurors who would eventually convict Nelson raised their hands when asked if they relied on public transportation,” Balko wrote. “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.”

Indeed, as David Goldberg wrote on T4America’s campaign blog, “Nelson, 30 and African-American, was convicted on the charge this week by six jurors who were not her peers. All were middle-class whites” and did not ride public transit. “In other words, none had ever been in Nelson’s shoes.”

So if you were cautiously awaiting further details before getting really and fully furious about Nelson’s conviction, go ahead: It’s time.

Many readers have asked how they can help. Some expressed a desire to contribute to Nelson’s legal fund. Others wanted to demand that Nelson’s charges be expunged.

I’ve left two messages over the past week with Nelson’s lawyer asking these (and other) questions. Neither message has been returned. So I can’t answer your questions about a legal defense fund. Nelson’s sentencing hearing is on Tuesday.

But there are now two petitions circulating. One, circulating at the Care2 petition site, asks the governor to overturn Nelson’s verdict. At the moment I’m writing this, the petition has gathered 4,369 signatures, on the way to its goal of 10,000. Another, which currently has 1,061 signatures at Change.org, asks not only for Nelson’s release but for the installation of a crosswalk. That petition is addressed to the Cobb County Transportation Department, Cobb County Commissioner District 1 (Helen Goreham), and the Solicitor General (Barry Morgan).

We’ll stay tuned for news on Nelson’s sentence on Tuesday and let you know the minute we hear.

  • Timc

    Wake up idiot!!! Jerry Guy should of never been on the streets!!!

  • deja

    Shouldn’t there be a crosswalk at all bus stops?? Makes sense to me

  • Ktiara5

    Buses do not turn around.  You cannot get a transfer to “go the other way” because this bus route ran only once an hour.  Spend one week–just one–relying totally on public transportation.  Then come back to this site and tell us about your experiences.  Did you convince a bus driver to turn around for you?

  • jrpc

    Yeah those 3 and 4 year olds, probably tired and fussy, should have no problem with a walk of over half of a mile.  Ever do much walking with kids that small?  I bet your an expert on public transit too?  Just for the record I wouldn’t do it either but I am fortunately spared such hellish choices.  This had to be the worst bus stop design ever!

  • Sammy

    Hmm…well spoken I am sure from someone who has never had to use public transportation with 3 tired children in the dark, crossing a dark street with NO traffic light anywhere….stupid spot for a bus stop! Do you have children? I have 4 of them, and I know when they are all tired it is very hard. She did not decide to cross the street there hoping her child would be killed! The DRIVER…i.e..KILLER DECIDED to get in a car drunk and drive!!!

    Everyone on here who is blaming her, needs to look at the real fact that she was a INNOCENT single mother who was only doing the best she could to care for her children, and that the driver was the one who was careLESS and took pills, got drunk, got into a car, and drove down a dark street at night…(and is partially blind)…Makes sense to blame this poor woman…right? OMG what is wrong with you?!

    So lets see, she went to the store on a bus since she does not have a car….this man drove because he does have a car, oh..but..he was drunk…should have been the other way around, and instead of blaming her on her decision to cross at the point that she did, maybe you should look at his stupid decision to GET IN THAT CAR DRUNK!! Oh, and he kept driving! He hit a baby and kept driving?

    Makes me so sad. Poor baby, and she is left to relive this in her her  head for the rest of her life……that is her life sentence…what is his???? A slap on the wrist. 6 months in jail…..SICK!!!!!

  • G

    A student, what taking one remedial class, where are the FATHERS of her children?  She went shopping with no job?  I now have viewed the street.  I’ve been in her shoes and I have NEVER, EVER jay walked with my children, NEVER and would NEVER jay walk on this kind of street.  SHE should be doing jail time.  No excuse.  There can’t be a crosswalk becasue buses dont’ stop at the intersections!!!!!

  • G

    If it’s too much to take them shopping and do the right thing and keep them safe, don’t go shopping.  I understand that children can be fussy, I have 3 children and I now have 3 grandchildren.  Again that is no excuse.  She was at fault and I am horrified that any of you think this is OK.  I would be horrified if some stupid mother let her young children run in front of my car.  I plan to write a letter asking that her record stay as it is.  She needs to be an example to her community that what she did is WRONG. 

  • G

    Thanks for the info on who to write to so that I can make sure that this stays on her record.  No Crosswalk, there is a bus that drops her on the right side of the street.  She made the decision to take the wrong bus.  People get your facts right.

  • Allisonharvey73

    LOL don’t go shopping. So in other words it is more responsible to NOT provide for your children by buying them food??? Maybe she did not have a babysitter??? COME ON PEOPLE…She is a stupid mother? It was an ACCIDENT. I am disgusted by you people who think she should do more jail time than the drunk!! It’s disgusting how people on here think. You should be ashamed to condone a DRUNK DRIVER who has been involved in THREE HIT AND RUN accidents (if that is what you can call it)……You all are disgusting!!!!!

  • Allie

    G

    Your comment is disgusting and immature at most. HOW DARE you make assumptions on someone else’s life? How can you ASSUME that she is taking remedial classes and has more than one father for her children? Why???? Because she is black? WHY IS THIS A RACIAL ISSUE. It is people like you who make me look bad!!!!!!!! It seems to me that you are in need of at least some remedial classes judging by your grammar and spelling issues. I feel bad for YOUR children, who have to grow up with a stupid prejudice parent…..The drunk was NOT going to stop just because she was crossing at a crosswalk on a dark street……why should she serve jail time..because she is black and you THINK you are better than she is? Judging by the comments on here by stupid heartless people, I can only hope that I never run into a situation that requires a jury with someone like you judging my fate!

    PS can you ACTUALLY say that EVERYTIME you cross the street with your children, it is at a crosswalk??

  • Sammy

    Who are you the crosswalk police? How can you make sure this stays on her record? You need to get your facts straight moron. She was coming from the opposite way. What is she supposed to do, ask the bus driver to turn around? I wonder what makes you think you can control other people’s records…..idiot LMAO

  • OrlandoMom

    I wish there was a way to get every little thing that you have done wrong in your lifetime so we could ask that to stay on your record. You are just saying all of this nonsense because you are a PREJUDICE person who does not like black, single mothers. PEOPLE LIKE YOU ARE WRONG

  • Eileen

    G:  Before you write that letter, here’s a suggestion.  Plug “1788 Austell Road, Marietta, GA” (the address of the apartment building she was going to) into Google maps and turn on the satellite view.  Click the little plus sign under the little yellow man on the right side of the map until you get a good view of how things looked.  Now, pretend you are Raquel Nelson and tell us where you would cross the street so that you could absolutely ensure that your child would not be hit by a driver.  (And don’t tell us “at the crosswalk”; tell us which crosswalk and how you would get to it.) 

    I’ve done this and my conclusion is that I would do exactly what she did.  (OK, I would not live there in the first place, but choosing the wrong place to live isn’t a crime.)  My second choice would be to walk the slight distance back to the unmarked crosswalk at Austell Circle, because I would clearly have the legal right of way there under Georgia law, but is it safer?  Probably not.  The problem there is that I would be trying to cross five lanes of traffic (no median there) with three children in the dark, all the while dealing not only with drivers coming at me from left and right, but also with drivers making turns.  I also guarantee you that almost no driver on that road knows what an unmarked crosswalk is, and I’d be amazed if the Cobb County police and prosecutor have ever gone after any driver for failing to stop for a pedestrian at an unmarked crosswalk.  I’d face the same problem if I managed to get to another unmarked crosswalk along the road and walk back.  What all the critics, including you, seems to want Ms. Nelson to have done is walk up to the signalized crosswalk at the intersection that’s a .3 miles or so up the road.  (You can “walk’ this on googlemaps if you click and drag the picture.)  But there are a few problems with that option as well:  a) I can’t tell from the map for sure, but it looks like sidewalks may be missing along portions of the route so I might have to walk in the road part of the way — again with three kids; b) I’d have to cross four unsignalized intersections along the way up and back; and c) when I got to the signalized intersection, there would be no median to stand on if I couldn’t get all the way across in one go — a fairly likely possibility because signals on roads like this are not timed to the needs of pedestrians.

    I know it’s a lot to ask, but sometimes it’s a good idea to look below the surface.  Maybe it used to be true that using a crosswalk guaranteed safety, but it doesn’t any more.  All it guarantees is that the crossing is legal, not that it is less dangerous than other options.  (And, btw, it is not illegal under Georgia law for a pedestrian to cross between unsignaled intersections.)

  • Not to belabor the point, but at Austell Road and Cunningham Road (the nearest crosswalk to the south of the collision), there was a bus stop. She wouldn’t have had to walk a third of a mile both ways – only a third of a mile one way. The likely impact of this decision is that the offending stop just gets removed, forcing everyone not to jaywalk and increasing travel time for those who ride transit. This is what happened in California when the State Supreme Court decided that transit agencies are liable for dangerous conditions found when riders access bus stops. Rather than adding more protection to crosswalks (the incident in CA happened at a marked but unsignalized crosswalk), transit agencies just remove bus stops when they hear of collisions, or just systematically when they review routes. Thus, in suburban areas, there are half mile to one mile gaps between stops on many routes, as agencies only put bus stops where there is a signalized intersection nearby.

  • Eileen

    Calwatch, I understand your point about how this could lead to removal of needed bus stops, but what’s the solution?  Are you saying that we drop the issue and sit by while  one person goes to jail?  (I don’t think that’s what you’re saying — just asking, since my response was really directed at the kneejerk reaction of G.)  Or that transit advocates need to follow up and make sure the easy solution isn’t the one that’s followed?  (Agreed.  Looks like the leader of PEDS Atlanta, who attended every day of the original trial, also agrees — her position is that the bus stop should be moved a slight distance to where the median is wider (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/need-to-know/voices/blame-the-road-not-the-victim/10685/)).  Also, on Cunningham…it’s marked, but it doesn’t look like a signaled crosswalk on googlemaps and the median doesn’t extend into the crosswalk, so there’d be no safe place to stand if she got caught in traffic.  (Unfortunately, I can only look at the satellite view, there’s no street view, so maybe I’m just not seeing a signal. Still, even if there were, I’d have the same concerns I expressed in my response to G about equating safety and legality.)  Would it be safer to cross there?  I doubt it. I live in DC and even here most drivers ignore pedestrian rights at marked crosswalks on big roads like this, because they are allowed to get away with it.  Enforcement is lacking, and at best there are fines, not more serious consequences. Yesterday, the assistant prosecutor was saying they had no choice but to prosecute Raquel Nelson; I wish someone had asked, “Oh, really?  Since you think you have to enforce all the laws, how many people did you prosecute last year for failing to give right of way to peds at the crosswalks along Austell Road?

  • Hm4man

    This is what ACLU crying sorry ass liberal’s has gotten us over the last 50 years. Liberal judges letting sorry ass people back out on the streets. Thanks to Obama we have two more on the S.Court for years to come. Thanks liberals you are to blame for the death of this child and your ACLU and sorry ass laws.

  • Hm4man

    This is what ACLU crying sorry ass liberal’s has gotten us over the last 50 years. Liberal judges letting sorry ass people back out on the streets. Thanks to Obama we have two more on the S.Court for years to come. Thanks liberals you are to blame for the death of this child and your ACLU and sorry ass laws.

  • Hm4man

    Thr first Sup. Just. of the United States got it right John Jay when he said he was afriad that someday judges would make their own  laws rather than going by the Cont. Of The United State. He was so right.  Most these bastards on the beach today has no idea what The Cons. has in it. Stupid jackasses judges  let people back out on the streets before the Law officers that put them in jail are back out doing their jobs.

  • Hm4man

    Here is why I use the word liberal the Huffington Post is a liberal blog. Once you start any statement from them all left wing nuts get their two cents worth in. They beleive everything the ACLU and all liberals have to say yes the Huffington Post, The New York comp post Washington Comp Post and the rest of the liberal junkies. Hate me if you wish the only people that do is the liberals that know they are wrong and are guilty of what I say.

  • The street view does show a signal at Cunningham. Therefore, that is the next safest stop – going north the next signalized intersection is Cochran Road, where unfortunately the street view ends (there is a stop at Kay Road, which is a four way intersection but not a marked crosswalk across Austell). 

    I could easily see lots of stop removal. The stop spacing in this area appears to be at one sixth of a mile, which is more frequent than suburban standards of one third to one quarter mile. (This is based on street view at each intersection, looking for the stop.) 

  • Adam

    Just Sayin:  Go take a bus once in your life before commenting any further.

  • mernie

    I am so sorry for the mother, but do NOT blame the poor prosecutor who was assigned the case to try.  She works for the state and was given the case.  The decision to try the case lies with the Chief Solicitor  and not with the person who tried the case in the courtroom.  The women was extremely negligent.  I wouldn’t walk into the center of the road with my three children for any reason in the world.  I would walk the extra distance before I did that.  I have some sympathy for the women, but in reality, she is the responsible one for her child’s death.  If she had taken the safe and reasonable way home, her child would be alive.  The driver of the car was NOT cited for DUI.  He hit the child because the child ran in front of him, BECAUSE his mother walked him into the median of the road.

  • Allie

    Mernie,

    I agree that the prosecutor should not be blamed in this case. It is the same for the Casey Anthony case, where the prosecutors are being blamed for not winning that case.

    I did not read that the driver was not charged. I read that he only got six months for the hit and run. If that is the case however, I DO NOT AGREE that they will let him off without a DUI since he is a HABITUAL OFFENDER and this is his THIRD offense of hit and run, and also since he ADMITTED to drinking and taking pain killers before getting behind the wheel. I cannot see where the mother with 3 children can be more of a danger than he is. I understand your point that she did make a bad decision to cross there, but given the circumstances of the road, and since there is no light to SAFELY cross the road even at the crosswalk, I feel she made the best decision she could. I would never blame this mother for her child’s death as you stated. That is a horrible thing to say. If anyone needs to be blamed for this little boy’s death, it is most certainly the drunk hit and run driver, who most definately would not have stopped even if she was at the crosswalk. Would the crosswalk would have magically saved her baby?

    Remember he is partially blind also? I am quite sure he was not allowed to drive at night. Shame on him for killing her baby.

    I pray she will be able to go on with her life and hug her remaining 2 children each day. She must already be living a life sentence of not having her little boy with her in her arms to hug anymore.

  • Doh

    He could not be cited for DUI, it was a hit and run.  He did not remain at the scene; and his history of prior hit and run convictions bears testimony to his culpability.  Once leaving the scene – he should have been the only individual charged in this accident.  The prosecutor’s office is most certainly to blame, since they are the ones that determine what charges will be filed in any particular case.  

  • Walkconsultants

       A crosswalk may be a death trap if drivers won’t comply.  A HAWK signal. (google it; it’s a set of fancy attention-grabbing lights that are pedestrian actuated) is called for here. Revise the petition.

  • Deviledegg143

    Amen

  • Moneybags

    Eileen, personally I think part of the solution is that we need better infrastructure for people (i.e. people walking, aka “pedestrians”).  So much money is poured into streets for obvious economic reasons.  But half the time there isn’t a sidewalk or a crosswalk… that’s the real shame.  And don’t get me started on infrastructure for bicycles.  I’m tired of people telling me I should try to bike more at the risk of my own life.

  • amar

    Try being a mother at the end of a long day just trying to get your children home. No one wants to walk a half mile or more just to cross the street. There should be a lighted crosswalk and signal at such a location. I feel for this poor mother, she doesn’t deserve judgement, the city should change the intersection.

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