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.
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.