A Georgia woman received a year of probation on Tuesday in the jaywalking death of her 4-year-old son, but the judge also made the unusual move of offering her a chance to clear her name at a new trial. The mother of two surviving children says she's satisfied with the outcome of the hearing.
Raquel Nelson was convicted by a jury this month of vehicular homicide for crossing a busy street outside the crosswalk with her children in April of 2010. She could have received as many as three years in prison -- which would have been a much longer sentence than the one for the hit-and-run driver who struck the boy. There has been outcry over Nelson's charges and conviction.
Nelson appeared happy as she left the court and thanked those who had helped and supported her.
"I'm ready to go home," she said, adding: "I'm walking out of here. I don't feel like I can be more satisfied."
Judge Kathryn Tanksley gave the 30-year-old woman a sentence that also includes 40 hours of community service, but she made the surprising offer of a new trial. If Nelson is found innocent, her record would be cleared. Her attorney David Savoy said they plan to take the judge up on the offer.
The death happened as Nelson was attempting to cross a busy five-lane street in Cobb County to get to her apartment after getting off a local bus, Savoy said.
The stop is about one-third of a mile from the nearest crosswalk, so Nelson and her family routinely crossed the middle of the street. She led her family to a median in the middle of the road and as they waited for traffic to die down, her daughter bolted across the street and her son followed. She chased after them when a van struck.
The driver, Jerry Guy, served a six-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to hit-and-run.
Prosecutors said the law gave them little choice but to charge Nelson with vehicular homicide, reckless conduct and crossing the roadway away from a crosswalk. She was convicted of all three charges. But the prosecutor asked the judge to sentence Nelson to probation, instead of jail time, for the offenses.
Cobb County Solicitor General Barry Morgan declined to comment on the case.
The handling of the case has stirred anger. More than 125,000 people joined an online campaign sponsored by Change.org asking the judge to show Nelson leniency. And Tanksley said her office had been flooded with letters and emails from around the country.
It's rare for someone to be tried and convicted on the homicide charge for crossing the street away from the crosswalk, a pedestrian advocate said.
"It's really cruel and a big waste of taxpayer money," said Sally Flocks, founder of PEDS, an Atlanta pedestrian advocacy group. "What is anybody going to learn from this? Raquel lost her precious son. The lesson she learned already is quit using transit and buy a car to get around. It's too dangerous to cross the streets here."
Although Nelson's relatives and friends cheered as the sentence was announced, some of her supporters were still angry after the hearing.
"I'm really upset. The judge shouldn't have given her any sentence," said Kevin Tobler, a 46-year-old Cobb County resident who lingered in the packed courtroom after the sentence was read.
"There's a certain amount of common sense we should have with the laws. And justice should be mixed with common-sense," he said. "It's insane. The prosecutors should be on trial. There are a lot of bad people in the world, and she's not one of them."