— Raquel Nelson is going to fight to clear her name.
The single mother from Marietta, Ga., who potentially faced more prison time for jaywalking than the man convicted for the hit-and-run accident that killed her 4-year-old son, announced Thursday in an exclusive interview on TODAY that she is opting for a new trial over probation and community service.
“This is for everyone,’’ she told Ann Curry about her decision to fight to wipe her record clean. “This is for, on a more personal level, myself, my children, single mothers, anybody who has to take public transportation, [and] this is for anyone who ever had to be in a scary situation like that.’’
On July 26, Nelson, 30, was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and 12 months probation in Cobb County State Court. But in an unusual decision by judge Kathryn Tanksley, she was also given the option of a new trial.
Nelson has decided to pursue the latter in order to clear herself of all the charges. The hope is that the prosecution will decide to drop the case rather than retry the single mom, who was controversially convicted by a jury on July 12 of second-degree vehicular homicide, reckless conduct, and failure to use a crosswalk during an incident that occurred on the night of April 10, 2010.
Hoping to clear her name
“She really needs the opportunity to clear her name totally, and I'm hoping that that's what happens,’’ said Nelson’s aunt, Loretta Williams, who appeared alongside her on Thursday. “As a family, we're going to stand behind her decision, and hopefully she can get the justice that she deserves.’’
Even though she could have taken the probation and community service and ended what has become a public ordeal, Nelson decided she does not want a conviction haunting her along with the death of her son. “That [conviction] is going to stay forever along with the fact that he's gone,’’ she said.
In the immediate aftermath of her sentencing, Nelson was hesitant about the new trial option. On TODAY last week she said “there's a part of me that doesn't want to go through this again.’’
Moreover, by agreeing to a new trial, Nelson has also put her faith in a justice system that rendered the controversial verdict the first time around. She said the support of others has strengthened her.
“Going through things like this makes you a heck of a lot tougher,’’ Nelson said. “By all means, you don't want to wake up in the morning with that [conviction] hanging over your head. It's bad enough to wake up every morning knowing that you're minus one of your children and that you'll never see them again.’’
Still, if the case does go to trial, Nelson will again have to deal with the emotions of the loss of her son, plus the threat of possibly being convicted a second time.
“That's a risk I'm willing to take,’’ she told Curry Thursday. “With this whole process being very lonely up until about the last three weeks, when it became much more public — that's helped a tremendous amount, just to have the outpouring of support from you guys and everyone else in America and across the world. That's helped keep me up throughout this whole thing.’’
Nelson also has changed attorneys, retaining Steve Sadow, who has taken the case pro bono because of what he feels is its unjust nature. Sadow, who joined the interview from Atlanta, is best known for representing Clifford Harris, the rapper better known as T.I., on illegal gun charges in 2008.
“I expect to be doing a lot of things different,’’ Sadow told Curry live from Atlanta. “First of all, Miss Nelson is not criminally responsible for what took place. What took place was a tragic accident, and I think that needs to be better explained to the jury. I think the circumstances under which she was crossing the roadway, the safe way that she was trying to do it, the fact that her child darted out from her — all of that was not made clear enough.
“I don't think it was made known to the jury that the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a criminal act. It's not enough for it to simply have been an accident.’’
Nelson’s saga has received national attention from talk-radio hosts, the online community, parents, the NAACP, and transportation advocates. Her ordeal began last year when she and her three children had gotten off at a bus stop in Marietta, and were trying to cross a four-lane highway without using a crosswalk in order to reach their apartment. After they reached the median, her young son pulled away from Nelson to follow his sister, who had made it to the other side of the street.
Jerry Guy struck members of the family with his van as they were crossing, killing 4-year-old A.J. Nelson in the process. Through his lawyer, Guy admitted at the time to having consumed alcohol earlier in the day while also on pain medication. Guy also is also partially blind in one eye, and had two prior hit-and-run convictions on his record that both occurred on Feb. 17, 1997.
Guy served a six-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to hit-and-run in the accident that killed A.J. Nelson and was released on Oct. 29. He is currently serving five years of probation.
Nelson potentially could have been sentenced to up to 36 months in prison after her conviction, but assistant Cobb County solicitor AnnaMarie Baltz told a judge last week that the prosecution never intended to seek jail time. Tanksley gave Nelson the rare option of serving the probation and community service or taking her chances again in a trial.
Nelson’s case provoked strong reaction across the nation, including an online petition signed by more than 140,000 people in less than 48 hours pleading for her not to receive jail time to proclamations by the NAACP and transportation advocates.
At her sentencing, her therapist, one of her children's teachers, and her brother spoke about her care for her children and her family, causing Nelson to dab her tear-filled eyes. Letters from her father, her boss, and a staff member at Chattahoochee Tech, where she is a student, were all read. Emails and letters from local citizens were also presented, and the judge indicated that she had personally received emails of support as well.
The NAACP declared the case a “grave miscarriage of justice when the mother who is still grieving is forced to fight harder for her freedom than the man who killed her son.’’
Transportation advocates expressed their disappointment at the fact that the nearest crosswalk to the bus stop near Nelson’s apartment was three-tenths of a mile away. Transportation for America communications director David Goldberg addressed it on his blog.
“Because she did as her fellow bus riders, who crossed at the same time and same place, and because she did what pedestrians will do every time — take the shortest reasonable path — she is guilty of vehicular homicide,’’ Goldberg wrote.
Nelson also felt that the jury in her initial trial could not really relate to her situation, potentially affecting the verdict. During jury questioning for Nelson’s first trial, when members of the jury that would eventually convict her were asked if any of them relied on public transportation, no one raised their hand. A handful admitted to occasionally taking the bus to go to Atlanta Braves games.
“I don’t think they could relate to what I was going through,’’ Nelson told TODAY in an earlier appearance. “All stated that they’ve never ridden public transportation and they’ve never really been in my shoes, so I think there was maybe not a jury of my peers.’’