Blaming a mother for a tragedy
A RECENT news story of how the criminal injustice system responded to a terrible accident demonstrates the brutal realities of racism and class oppression in the United States.
The story originates in Marietta, Ga. On July 20, DemocracyNow! reported that Raquel Nelson, a grieving African American mother, had been convicted--by an all-white jury--of homicide by vehicle in the second degree, jaywalking and reckless conduct.
What exactly was Nelson guilty of? As she attempted to cross a four-lane highway last year with three of her children, a vehicle struck her, one of her daughters and her four-year-old son, who died of his injuries. For her "crimes," Nelson faced as much as three years in prison. A judge in the case recently sentenced her to probation with no jail time--and, seemingly in recognition of the many problems in the case and the outcry it caused, offered Nelson a new trial.
Jerry L. Guy, the partially blind driver of the vehicle that struck the Nelsons, fled the scene. When finally apprehended, Guy admitted he had consumed alcohol and painkillers before the accident.
A serial offender with two convictions in 1997 for hit-and-runs, Guy was initially charged with hit-and-run, first-degree homicide with a vehicle and cruelty to children. One early report speculated that, with the "right judge," Guy might spend the rest of his life in prison.
But the state chose to try Guy only for the hit-and-run charge; all other charges were dropped. After serving six months of his five-year sentence, he was released on probation. The headline of the DemocracyNow! story drew out the bitter irony: "African-American Mother Faces More Jail Time than Drunk Driver Who Killed Her Son."
There is more to the story. Raquel Nelson was not only tried by an all-white jury. She was tried and convicted, as Tanya Snyder documented, by a middle-class white jury.
During jury selection, no one selected to serve raised their hands when asked if they relied on public transportation, and only one admitted to having ever ridden a public bus. In response to a subsequent question, a few said they had taken buses to Braves' games.
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GIVEN THAT Raquel Nelson was not judged by a jury of her peers, their willingness to convict her on outrageously heartless charges is not surprising. Capitalist society, as Marx reminds us, is a "heartless world" that produces "soulless conditions." Nor is it surprising that the wrong defendant was in the dock. The jury reflected the nature of the system that empanelled it.
But merely to review the underlying facts in Raquel Nelson's case is simultaneously to indict Marietta's city planners.
Like many poor people in the United States, Nelson relies on a grievously inadequate system of public transportation for the mobility that more affluent people can afford to take for granted. Her son died in the gathering darkness of evening in Marietta because his mother had taken him and his siblings to Wal-Mart for pizza and shopping for his birthday party the next day. They had missed the bus home, which runs once an hour.
As a result, darkness was falling when they reached their stop. Home was directly across the street, a four-lane highway separated by a median. The nearest pedestrian crosswalks were three-tenths of a mile away in either direction.
Nelson and her children, like the other passengers who exited with them, like the other passengers who exit there hourly, crossed to the median to wait for a break in the traffic. Her thoughts were on getting her children home before dark.
She was holding her son's hand and waiting when another young woman started across the street. He pulled free and followed her. Nelson and one of her daughters raced after him, calling for him to stop. Guy's car struck all three, killing 4-year-old A.J. Nelson.
It is no accident that cars are king in Marietta, just as they rule the road in America. An efficient system of public transportation that effectively met people's needs would eat into the profits of the petroleum industry--the same petroleum industry that exercises a dominant influence on U.S. foreign and military policy.
Cases like that of Raquel Nelson are the inevitable by products of a system that prioritizes maximizing the profits of a few over meeting human needs.
Mark Clinton, Holyoke, Mass.