Raquel Nelson and the Aggressive Prosecutions of Black Mothers

The criminal justice system has been especially quick in recent years to slam poor, black mothers.

By Julianne Hing Jul 28, 2011

Raquel Nelson, who was convicted of second-degree vehicular manslaughter after her four-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver, will not be going to jail after all. On Tuesday a judge sentenced Nelson to 12 months of probation and 40 hours of community service, and offered her a new trial, which she’s since decided to pursue. She faced three years in prison.

It was a stunning move in a dramatic case that’s captured national headlines and for criminal justice reform advocates, exemplified the racialized impacts of aggressive prosecutions.

On April 10, 2010 Nelson’s son A.J. Newman was killed by a drunk driver while the family attempted to jaywalk across a busy street. They’d just gotten out at a bus stop and were out later than Nelson would have liked after having missed their first bus. Their home was directly across a four-lane street and like many other passengers, they decided to cross directly to their home. The nearest crosswalk was more than three tenths of a mile away from the bus stop. While waiting at a divider, A.J. slipped out of his mom’s grasp and into the street. Nelson and her other daughter followed, and they were all hit by a drunk driver careening down the road.

The driver of the van, Jerry Guy, who had two previous hit-and-run convictions on his record, fled the scene. A.J. died. Guy later pleaded guilty and confessed that he’d been drinking that day. He served six months of a five-year sentence.

After the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an article raising alarm about the dangers of jaywalking, instead of, say, the dangers that poor urban design pose to transit-dependent families, the solicitor general decided to prosecute Nelson for endangering her children.

Earlier this month an all-white jury of middle class folks who admitted they had limited experience taking public transportation in the area found Nelson guilty of second-degree vehicular manslaughter and reckless endangerment.

It was just the latest in a year of headline-making reports of mothers, all of them single parents, and all of them women of color, who’d been aggressively prosecuted for supposed transgressions they’d committed while trying to raise their children.

In January, Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar was found guilty of a felony for using her father’s home address to enroll her daughters to a better out-of-district school. Williams-Bolar was charged with defrauding the local school system of $30,500. And in April, Connecticut mother Tanya McDowell was charged with larceny for "stealing" her son’s education when she enrolled him in a neighboring school district’s kindergarten. School officials say she "stole" more than $15,000 worth of education for her son.

Criminal justice reform advocates say these stories are hardly as rare as they might seem, and are not isolated incidents.

"I don’t think it’s that unusual," said Inimai Chettiar, advocacy and policy counsel at the ACLU. "It’s just unusual that we’re hearing about it."

"We prosecute people for very low level crimes when there is no actual reason to," Chettiar said of Nelson’s case. "We put people in prison for public safety, or from a punitive perspective or in an attempt to rehabilitate but she’s already been punished–she lost her son."

"Putting her in prison isn’t going to make us any safer."

Chettiar said that these sorts of prosecutions were symptomatic of a larger systemic problem where district attorneys are often publicly elected officials, and so tend to prosecute people based on what they perceive to be politically useful issues. Indeed, Nelson was charged only after the AJC article ran a story on Nelson’s family and pointed out that she had faced no punishment for her son’s death.

"Prosecutors have discretion in terms of what they’re going to prosecute and they’re choosing to go after a lot of these so called child endangerment cases and a lot of them have disproportionate effects on single mothers, who are usually low income women of color."

That Nelson faced more jail time than the man who killed her son led to a public outcry, and multiple online petitions created in the wake of her conviction called for leniency in her sentencing.

"To come after me so much harder than they did [Guy], I say it’s a slap in the face," Nelson said, Georgia’s 11alive reported.

"Even though he had a history of it, I know no one gets up that day and says ‘I’m going to kill a 4-year-old,’ so I have to forgive that portion of it," Nelson said in an appearance on the "Today" show.

"I don’t think there’s any reason that’s rational other than an emotional, fear-based reaction," Chettiar said. "A lot of criminal justice happens in response to some kind of highly publicized event … or to a perceived public threat that isn’t necessarily there. People say, ‘Oh my god, all these bad mothers, let’s try to do something.’ "