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Homicide charge dropped against jaywalking mom

MARIETTA — Three years past, Raquel Nelson still mourns the death of her 4-year-old son A.J. Newman at the hands of a hit-and-run driver.

But no longer must she fight criminal accusations that she also was to blame.

On Thursday, a Cobb County prosecutor formally dropped a second round of vehicular homicide and reckless conduct charges alleging that because she led her three children from the bus stop across a darkened Austell Road to their apartment, she caused A.J.'s death.

"I might just go and sit somewhere and cry for an hour," Nelson said, her eyes tearing up outside the Cobb County state courthouse. "It's bittersweet."

Nelson drew national support from activist groups and pedestrian advocates who raised concerns about pedestrian safety in suburbia, where the have-nots depend on public transportation along roads designed primarily for cars.

Since April 10, 2010, when Cobb County police and the county solicitor's office first filed charges against her, Nelson has struggled against the stigma that she put her child in the path of the speeding van that killed him.

On a Saturday night, Nelson and her three children had stepped off a bus and were trying to cross four-lane Austell Road to their apartment complex when A.J. pulled away from his mother as they stood on the median. He was struck by a van that, after impact, didn't stop.

Jerry L. Guy, the driver who admitted to hitting A.J., served six months in jail after having been convicted in two similar offenses.

Nelson, meanwhile, was charged with three misdemeanors: second-degree vehicular manslaughter, crossing outside of a crosswalk (or jaywalking), and reckless conduct. A jury convicted her more than a year later.

"It would have been cheaper to put in safety improvements than to have all these hearings," said Sally Flocks, president and CEO of the nonprofit pedestrian advocacy organization PEDS Atlanta.

Still, Nelson remained steadfast that she wasn't culpable.

Cobb Solicitor Barry Morgan on Thursday told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he wanted to be fair to Nelson, but that she had to claim some of the blame for what happened to her son.

"Our ultimate goal was to get her to accept responsibility in this and not overburden her with penalties," Morgan said.

"It was always important to her for the state prosecutors and the community to know she is not responsible for the death of her child," her lawyer, Steve Sadow, said Thursday.

So much so that Nelson rejected a plea from the solicitor's office to do community service as punishment for the homicide charge.

And when a judge offered Nelson the choice between a year on probation or a do-over of the trial she'd just lost -- complete with the threat of up to three years in jail if she lost a second time -- Nelson chose to fight.

Morgan said his prosecutors went forward with the homicide charge because the state's code dictates it.

"If there's a death involved in a traffic offense, that's the charge," he said.

With celebrity litigator Sadow representing her pro-bono, she first argued to have the reckless conduct charge thrown out. Then Sadow appealed the charges unsuccessfully to the state's highest court.

Only after the State Supreme Court rejected her appeal and Nelson refused a new deal from the solicitor's office did both sides reach an agreement.

"There never should have been a homicide," Sadow said. "It was a tragic accident. The only thing that was acceptable from the state was not to prosecute the homicide."

The three years since A.J.'s death haven't been easy for Nelson.

In April last year, she was arrested for fleeing police trying to pull her over for speeding. That case is pending.

The single mother was scrutinized in the media -- with accompanying commentary judging her as a parent -- every time she appeared in court.

And at every level of legal argument made, she was constantly reminded of her loss.

"Throughout the course of three years, I've had to accept the fact that what happened happened," Nelson said. "A.J. can't come back."

Nelson said she has her two daughters -- one an infant at the time of the incident, and the eldest who was then 10 -- to thank for the strength she has mustered.

"I couldn't have done it without them," she said. "They are a living continuum for me."

Now, what?

Nelson said she wants her story to help make things better for pedestrians throughout the metro area.

"I'm a living, walking example," she said. "Hopefully, there will be some kind of change to the way" roads are built for pedestrians.

Flocks said the Georgia Department of Transportation is looking at moving the Cobb County Transit bus stop that Nelson used in 2010 closer to a traffic light.

"I've seen a lot of progress in the DOT's understanding that you need to put in crosswalks closer to where people live," she said.

While Nelson said she wants to be part of that progress, for now she's relieved to have this chapter in her life behind her.

"I grieve every day," she said. "I'm glad to have it over and I'm glad to move forward."