Convicted Suburban Mom Has City Planners Nervous

Jul 30, 2011

Raquel Nelson is a 30-year-old single mother from Cobb County, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. On top of dual roles of breadwinner and caregiver, Nelson is a student at Kennesaw State University. She uses public transportation to get from her suburban apartment to places like school, work and the store because she can't afford a car.

On April 10, 2010, Nelson was at a party with her three kids celebrating a birthday. That evening, they just missed their bus home and had to wait an hour for the next one. After the long wait, the next bus finally came and it was already past the kids' bedtime. Tired from the long day, Nelson and her children boarded the bus and headed home.

Nelson's bus stop is across from their apartment complex, on the wrong side of a four lane, divided highway. Instead of walking 1/3 of a mile to the nearest crosswalk and another 1/3 of a mile back up the street to her apartment building, Raquel Nelson did what most of her neighbors did. She walked her kids across the busy state road to get to her home directly across the street.

Once they reached the median, Nelson's four-year-old son, A.J., ran out into the road. His mother chased after him. Raquel Nelson, her son, and her youngest daughter were then struck by van a hit and run accident. Later that night Nelson's son died from the injuries he sustained.

Once found the driver, Jerry L. Guy , admitted to drinking earlier in the day. Guy was originally charged with hit and run, first degree homicide by vehicle and cruelty to children but the charges were later dropped to just the hit and run charge. Guy pleaded guilty and received a two-year prison sentence, but was out six months.

Prosecutors in Cobb County also charged Nelson in her son's death. The mother was charged and convicted with vehicular homicide in the second degree, crossing roadway elsewhere than at crosswalk and reckless conduct. She faced up to three years in prison.

In a twist, on the day of her sentencing the judge in the case gave Nelson one year's probation, 40 hours of community service, and took the unusual step of offering her a new trial - an offer Nelson is considering.

A Question of Urban Planning

Nelson's conviction concerned groups like the NAACP, who felt the all-white, middle class jury who admitted to having never used public transportation before, was unable to understand Nelson's situation and choices. The case also become a catalyst for urban planning and public transportation organizations.

David Goldberg, the Communications Director of Transportation for America, says that the area of Cobb County where Nelson lives is an old suburb, built primarily for cars. But recently, lower income people who can't afford cars have been moving into the area.

Goldberg tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz that these new residents are "using the bus, they're walking, but they're in places that are entirely hostile to people on foot."

In the case of Raquel Nelson, Goldberg explains that the bus stop where the accident took place primarily services Nelson's apartment complex. Yet there is no crosswalk at the stop, forcing riders to walk 2/3 of a mile out of their way just to cross the street at a traffic light.

Goldberg says that neither state or local transportation officials have addressed the safety issues posed by the accident because of the potential for future litigation.

"If they were to go out and fix the problem," Goldberg tells Raz, "it would be a tacit acknowledgment that the problem existed.

"They wouldn't want to give any ammo to a lawsuit."

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