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: 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, while 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.

And as Radley Balko wrote in the Huffington Post, the odds were stacked against Nelson from the start.

“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 if there’s any way you can help. Some expressed a desire to contribute to Nelson’s legal fund. Others wanted to know if they could write a letter to someone demanding 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.