Cobb mother chooses a retrial

Raquel Nelson will have her day in court — again. The mother convicted by a Cobb County jury on three misdemeanor counts after her 4-year-old son was killed by a hit-and-run driver has chosen a new trial rather than accept a year’s probation.

“Ms. Nelson has decided to proceed with a retrial,” her new attorney, Steve Sadow, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Sadow said he will handle the case for free “because her prosecution is morally wrong and unjustified.”

Nelson’s conviction last month garnered international media coverage, much of which drew similar conclusions. Despite the furor, Cobb County Solicitor General Barry Morgan said in an email Thursday that his office “will move forward” with the new trial, scheduled for Oct. 25. Morgan said he could not comment further because the case is pending.

On the night of April 10, 2010, Ashley Jones was trying to cross Austell Road just feet from 4-year-old Aaron “A.J.” Newman, his mother and his two siblings, 9 and 2.

“I don’t think she should’ve been blamed,” Jones said.

But AnnaMarie Baltz, the Cobb County assistant solicitor who prosecuted the case, said during the sentencing hearing that Nelson was clearly culpable under Georgia law.

“These cases are inherently difficult because they are unintentional,” she said. “But the state is bound to uphold the law.”

It was nearing 10 p.m. when several riders got off the northbound No. 30 Cobb County Transit bus and gathered on the three-foot median in the center of Austell Road.

As they waited to cross to their apartment complex, A.J. snatched his hand away from his mother, Jones said, and chased after his older sister, who was safely on the other side.

At that moment, a white van barreled down the road.

“He had to have been going 60 mph,” Jones told the Journal-Constitution in her first interview since the incident. “He actually sped up, and jumped in front of another car while we were walking across the street.”

Jones dodged the van, but A.J., who was just to her left, took the full brunt of the speeding vehicle, she said.

“He went flying,” she said. “And when he landed, his little head was cracked open.”

The van also hit Nelson, who was holding her 2-year-old daughter, and skidded up onto the sidewalk before driving away.

In the driver’s wake were tire marks on the sidewalk, a bent traffic sign, A.J.’s shoes in the middle of the road next to a puddle of his blood, and a young mother using CPR to try to save her son.

The driver, Jerry Lynn Guy, had two previous hit-and-run convictions. When police located him, he admitted hitting A.J. and driving away. A plea deal got him six months in jail and the remainder of a five-year sentence on probation.

A Cobb County police investigation also laid culpability on Nelson.

“Ms. Nelson failed to supervise Master Newman when he failed to yield to all traffic when he attempted to cross Austell Road not within a crosswalk,” read the investigators’ report obtained by the AJC.

The jury convicted Nelson of secondary vehicular homicide, failure to use a crosswalk and reckless conduct. The judge offered her a choice: Accept one year of probation or undergo a new trial.

Those who find fault with her conviction say that jaywalking was a reasonable choice, given the alternative, which was to walk with the three children, in the dark, a distance of three-tenths of a mile to reach a signal light and crosswalk.

An AJC analysis of the spot found that an adult walking to either of the nearest crosswalks, then back to the apartment complex on the other side of the street, would have to take more than 1,200 paces. The trip would have taken 15 to 20 minutes.

“The jury didn’t understand circumstances,” said Sally Flocks, CEO of a nonprofit pedestrian advocacy group, PEDS. “I would love to have the jury actually look at the transit stop, have to cross at that stop, and maybe have them walk all the way down to the signal.”

Mark Rosenberg, president of the nonprofit Task Force for Global Health, also faults the road design.

“We have all paid for and continue to design roads that are going to kill people,” said the former U.S. assistant surgeon general and former director of the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.

Lives can be saved, he said, by “changing the roadways, where people stand when they get off buses, and where they cross the street.”

Ron Carlson, an endowed chair of the University of Georgia’s law school, faults the law.

“How could this woman be charged with vehicular homicide if she wasn’t in a car?” he asked.

The law, read by Baltz to jurors during the first trial, says in part: “Whosoever shall cause the death of another person, without any intention to do so, by violating [Georgia’s crosswalk law], shall be guilty of homicide by vehicle in the second degree when such violation is the cause of said death.”

Carlson finds that problematic.

“I think some legislative review is in order to see if that is a provision that overreaches,” he said. “I would strongly recommend legislative action to review that law.”