Raquel Nelson will not be going to jail — at least not anytime soon.
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The single mother from Marietta, Ga., who potentially faced more prison time for jaywalking than the man convicted for the hit-and-run accident that killed her 4-year-old son, was sentenced to 40 hours of community service and 12 months probation in Cobb County State Court, but then also given the option of a new trial in an unusual decision.
“One year probation, it was better than jail time, of course,” a relieved Nelson told Ann Curry in an exclusive live interview Wednesday. “I was just happy to be walking out of the courtroom.”
“I'm not familiar with this ever happening,“ Nelson’s attorney, David Savoy, told NBC News regarding the option for a new trial. But, he added, “I was very pleased with the decision and I think she [the judge] made the right decision.”
Nelson put her feelings about the judge more directly to Curry Wednesday: “When she said what she said, it was a relief. I probably could have kissed her.”
Whether Nelson will accept the option of the new trial was less clear. Asked by Curry if she wanted the opportunity to clear her record, Nelson said: “We’re weighing our options right now. There’s a part of me that doesn't really want to go through it again, but by the same token, I'll look at it and say, ‘You know, if I've done it once, if that's the greater purpose, then I'll do it again.” Nelson said that she has 30 days to decide whether to accept the option of a new trial.
Several witnesses spoke on Nelson's behalf at the sentencing, and numerous supportive emails were presented. Her situation also galvanized the online community: A petition posted on change.org asking that she not receive any jail time received more than 140,000 signatures in 48 hours.Video: Watch her speak out about judge's decision on TODAY (on this page)
In the courtroom, Nelson's therapist, one of her children's teachers, and her brother spoke about her care for her children and her family, causing Nelson to dab her tear-filled eyes. Letters from her father, her boss, and a staff member at Chattahoochee Tech, where she is a student, were all read. Emails and letters from local citizens were also presented, and the judge indicated that she had personally received emails of support as well.
On July 12, Nelson was convicted of second-degree vehicular homicide, reckless conduct, and failure to use a crosswalk during an incident that occurred on the night of April 10, 2010. She and her three children had gotten off at a bus stop in Marietta, and were trying to cross a four-lane highway without using a crosswalk in order to reach their apartment.
Jerry Guy, a man who had two prior hit-and-run convictions, struck the family with his van as they were crossing, killing 4-year-old A.J. Nelson in the process. Guy served a six-month prison sentence after pleading guilty to a hit-and-run and was released on Oct. 29. He is currently serving five years of probation. Nelson could have been sentenced to up to 36 months in jail.
“I’ve had to accept that he’s gotten six months,’’ Nelson told Ann Curry in a live interview on TODAY Monday. “There’s nothing I can do about it. Even though he has had a history of it, I know that nobody gets up that day and says, ‘I’m going to kill a 4-year-old.’
“I’ve had to forgive that portion of it. However, I think to come after me so much harder than they did him, it’s a slap in the face. This will never end for me.’’
“Miss Nelson was shown no sympathy whatsoever by the system,’’ attorney Mark Schwartz told NBC News. “This will live with her forever.’’
Nelson and her younger daughter suffered minor injuries in the accident, while her older daughter was unhurt. Through his lawyer, Guy admitted at the time to having consumed alcohol earlier in the day while also on pain medication. Guy also is also partially blind in one eye, and had two prior hit-and-run convictions on his record that both occurred on Feb. 17, 1997. He received a two-year prison sentence but was released in less than a year for those convictions.
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According to news reports, residents of Nelson’s apartment complex had previously complained to the city about the difficulty of getting home from the bus stop. The nearest crosswalk from the bus stop was nearly three-tenths of a mile away, so like many others who regularly use public transportation in that area, Nelson crossed to the center median with her children. After several others had crossed the other two lanes to reach the other side of the highway, she followed with her children while clutching grocery bags. A.J. was then fatally struck by Guy’s van.
“It is her fault and it is his fault, but at the same time she’s suffered such a great loss, so I just don’t see what putting her in prison is going to do,’’ Michael Johnson, one of Nelson’s neighbors, told NBC News.
During jury questioning for Nelson’s trial, when members of the jury that would eventually convict her were asked if any of them relied on public transportation, no one raised their hand. A handful admitted to occasionally taking the bus to go to Atlanta Braves games.
“I don’t think they could relate to what I was going through,’’ Nelson said. “All stated that they’ve never ridden public transportation and they’ve never really been in my shoes, so I think there was maybe not a jury of my peers.’’
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