July 26, 2011 -- A Georgia mother whose son was killed in a tragic hit and run accident, will again go on trial for his death. A Cobb County State Court Judge has ruled that Raquel Nelson will face charges of vehicular homicide and criminal jaywalking, in the death of her 4 year old son A.J. Newman.
Nelson was convicted of the charges in an earlier trial and faced up to three years of jail time, a longer sentence than the hit-and-run driver who killed her young son. In July State Court Judge Katherine Tanksley instead sentenced Nelson to probation, but offered her a deal. Nelson could undergo a new trial, and if she was acquitted, her record would be cleared. Nelson accepted the offer.
According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, earlier this month Nelson's attorney asked the judge to dismiss all charges against his client. The judge did dismiss a charge of reckless conduct, but determined that Nelson would stand trial again on the other two charges. The trial will begin on October 25th.
Nelson's son was killed as she and her three children were attempting to cross a busy street, heading from a bus stop to their home across the road
Raquel Nelson, 30, was charged with vehicular homicide because she was not crossing the street at the crosswalk in Marietta, Ga., at the time of the accident last year.
Nelson faced up to three years in jail on the charges, but Tanksley instead gave her 12 months probation on each of two charges, vehicular homicide and failure to use the crosswalk, but combined the two counts into a year's probation.
In addition, she was ordered to perform 40 hours of community service.
In an unusual move, Tanksley also offered Nelson a new trial, telling her that if she is found innocent of the charges her record would be cleared. Nelson's lawyer David Savoy they would accept the judge's offer.
As she left court, Nelson was clearly relieved that her sentence did not involve jail time.
"I am walking out of here. I don't think you could be more satisfied," she said.
The judge said she had received letters of support for Nelson from across the country, and Nelson's lawyer delivered a petition with over 125,000 signatures collected from the website change.org in support of her and to demand a crosswalk at the site of the accident.
Prosecutors told the court that they never intended to seek jail time for Nelson, and several characters witnesses spoke glowingly of the woman who volunteered at school events.
The driver of the car was given six months in jail for hitting Nelson, one of her daughters and her son Aaron Newman last year, and then fleeing the scene.
Nelson was originally charged with reckless conduct, improperly crossing a roadway and second-degree homicide by vehicle.
"The fact that there was actually a charge was shocking," Nelson told ABC News before the sentencing. "And then later being convicted, that was even more shocking."
Nelson and her children were coming home from an early birthday celebration for Nelson and two of her children, all of whom have birthdays around the same time. The single mother, who relied on public transportation, missed one bus back home. The family had to wait an hour for the next bus, and that meant it was dark when they were dropped off at the bus stop right across the street from their apartment building. Nelson crossed the median with her children and waited for traffic to clear before venturing the rest of the way.
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"The rest of the people that had gotten off the bus with us had started to cross and my son let go of my hand," Nelson said. A.J., as he was affectionately called, darted into the street. "I ran out in the street and tried to grab him. He and my daughter and I were hit, and he … died from his injuries."
Jerry Guy, the man who hit the family and never stopped, reportedly admitted drinking "a little" alcohol earlier in the day. He also admitted to being on painkillers and being partially blind in one eye.
Guy had been convicted of two previous hit and run accidents. He pleaded guilty to the hit and run that took A.J.'s life and served six months in jail.
Nelson says she has had little time to grieve properly, given the court proceedings against her.
"Some people said I caused the accident because jaywalking was involved," she said. "They said that it was my responsibility and that I should have walked down the street to the traffic light."
But others point out the traffic light was a third of a mile away. That meant Nelson would have had to drag her children and packages a third of a mile to the light, cross the street, than backtrack a third of a mile on the other side of the roadway to get back to her apartment building.
"No pedestrian on earth walks a half mile or more out of their way simply to get across the street," said David Goldberg, communications director of Transportation for America, a coalition of groups that advocate for more transportation options.
Goldberg was stunned at the charges against Nelson.
"We couldn't believe that this woman had actually been charged with a crime," he said. "Once we saw the bus stop was positioned [with] her apartment complex … directly across from the street where she'd been put off by the bus."
Georgia Mom Gets Probation After Son Killed By Hit-Run Driver
Goldberg also points out that Nelson, a black woman, was convicted by an all-white jury. He doesn't believe racism was at work, but says "part of the lack of compassion arises from the fact that the jurors were by the description of themselves middle class folks who had never taken a bus in metropolitan Atlanta, so they had never actually been in the shoes of Miss Nelson and the other people who were crossing at that particular place."
"I think there's a division between people who have always been able to rely on a car and other who haven't always been able to rely on a car," he added.
He believes accidents like this should force planners to re-think how they accommodate pedestrians.
"It's the highway designers and the traffic planner's job to prevent or mitigate against accidents that will happen, Goldberg said. "One thing we do know is that pedestrians always take the shortest route, and if you don't provide them a safe crossing, you're failing as a designer."
Nelson's case has spawned a petition drive at Change.org asking for her to go free, and for the city to put a crosswalk at the bus stop. The website claims to have more than 100,000 signatures, and may bring the petition to the court Tuesday.
As for Nelson, she isn't sure what to expect when she goes before the judge, or even who will take care of her two surviving daughters if she's sentenced to jail time.
"I mean that is up to God, and I just hope for the best," she said.