Prosecuting the victim, absolving the perpetratorsJuly 18, 2011
By David Goldberg
Updated 7/19: The charge has been corrected. Nelson was charged with vehicular homicide. Updated 7/21: More information added at bottom.
This is an advocacy blog, but typically we’re rather measured in our tone. Sometimes, however, we see something so utterly outrageous, so emblematic of the failure of our current transportation system, that “measured” just won’t cut it.
The prosecution and conviction this week of Raquel Nelson – a metro Atlanta mother who lost her four-year-old son to a hit-and-run driver – on the charge of vehicular homicide is one of those times.
You heard that right: According to the office of Cobb County prosecutor Barry Morgan, Nelson – who had no car at the time – committed vehicular homicide by attempting to cross a five-lane highway with her three kids to get to her apartment, after being let off the bus.
This photo shows the bus stops (located on both sides) of Austell Road, and the path taken by Raquel Nelson across Austell Road to get from the bus stop to her apartment complex across the street. No marked crossings are visible in the photo.
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 none had ever taken a bus in metro Atlanta. In other words, none had ever been in Nelson’s shoes:
They had never taken two buses to go grocery shopping at Wal-Mart with three kids in tow. They had never missed a transfer on the way home that caused them to wait a full hour-and-a-half with tired and hungry kids for the next bus. They had never been let off at a bus stop on a five-lane speedway, with their apartment in sight across the road, and been asked to drag those three little ones an additional half-mile-plus down the road to the nearest traffic signal and back in order to get home at last.
And they had never lost control of an over-eager four-year-old as they waited on a three-foot median for a car to pass. Nor had they watched helplessly as a driver who had had “three or four” beers and two painkillers barreled toward their child.
That’s right: Because Nelson did not lug her exhausted little ones three-tenths of a mile from the bus stop to a traffic signal in order to cross five lanes of traffic, she is guilty of vehicular homicide. Because she did as her fellow bus riders, who crossed at the same time and place, and because she did what pedestrians will do every time – take the shortest reasonable path – she is guilty of vehicular homicide.
What about the highway designers, traffic engineers, transit planners and land use regulators who allowed a bus stop to be placed so far from a signal and made no other provision for a safe crossing; who allowed – even encouraged, with wide, straight lanes – prevailing speeds of 50-plus on a road flanked by houses and apartments; who carved a fifth lane out of a wider median that could have provided more of a safe refuge for pedestrians; who designed the entire landscape to be hostile to people trying to get to work and groceries despite having no access to a car?
They are as innocent as the day is long, according to the solicitor general’s office.
Look, accidents happen because people make misjudgments. Raquel Nelson probably made a mistake in following her fellow bus riders and trying to get home sooner. The driver made a series of errors, and was convicted of hit and run. But these are “accidents” waiting to happen, thanks to poor planning and dangerous designs.
If you look at our pedestrian fatalities map for metro Atlanta (or any other metro, for that matter) and zoom in, you see that the dead bodies line up like soldiers along certain corridors – your first clue that the design is not matching up with the use of the street. Austell Road/SR 5 is one of several such corridors in this area of Southeast Cobb County, which was built as auto-only suburbia but now is home to many lower-income families who often don’t have access to a car.
This is a major issue in inner suburbs all across the country. Neither the public transportation nor the highway designs work for the new populations that are living, working and walking in these areas. People are being punished and killed, needlessly, simply for being pedestrians. Incidentally, these are also the areas where millions of older Americans are expecting to “age in place”, so we’ll see more seniors trying to cross the road or catch the bus. Our research in Dangerous by Design showed that thousands of lives could be saved – and millions more lives improved – by retrofitting these dangerous roads, as many communities are trying to do.
Right now some in Congress are attempting to kill the small slice of funding dedicated to these kinds of projects. In truth, communities need many more resources to fix these safety issues and make our neighborhoods safer and more hospitable. As the vast majority of these roads were built under federal programs, this should be a national project.
“The Atlanta region has a plan to spend billions of federal and state dollars on projects that shave one or two minutes off a 30-minute driving commute,” said Sally Flocks, the executive director of a pedestrian safety group in Atlanta, who closely followed the trial. “But we think nothing of expecting transit riders and pedestrians to spend another 20 minutes walking out of their way.”
As a friend said, the prosecutors “stuck a knife in a grieving mother and twisted it.” Now she’s awaiting sentencing of up to 36 months in jail and working desperately to make provisions for her kids, should she be sent away. Prosecuting people like Raquel Nelson, who truly are the victims of poor planning and bad design, is like closing the door of the proverbial barn and then burning it down. One well-marked crosswalk would save more lives, and in all likelihood it would cost less than this malicious prosecution cost the taxpayers of Georgia.
Tip of the hat to Streetsblog Capitol Hill for getting the word out about this story and bringing it to our attention.
Update: This AJC story from 2010 sheds a little more light on exactly what happened. And it appears that Nelson wasn’t initially charged, according to the story:
Nelson said she’s read the blogs and wishes people knew what happened that night.
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.”
There’s a great post on the story from Sarah Goodyear at Grist worth reading, and there’s a petition circulating if you’d like to get involved further.