MARIETTA - A woman who was arrested after her 4-year-old son was struck and killed by a van as they were jaywalking across a busy street was spared a prison sentence Tuesday following an outcry over her arrest.
Raquel Nelson, 30, was convicted by a jury earlier this month of vehicular homicide and other charges for not using a crosswalk and could have gotten three years behind bars - far more than the six months the hit-and-run driver served.
Instead, without explanation, Judge Kathryn Tanksley gave the suburban Atlanta mother a year's probation, ordered 40 hours of community service, and took the unusual step of offering her a new trial - an offer Nelson is considering.
A crowd of supporters broke out in applause.
"I'm ready to go home," a relieved-looking Nelson said. "I'm walking out of here. I don't feel like I can be more satisfied."
Prosecutors' extremely rare decision to bring charges against the grieving mother had created a furor, with Nelson's supporters calling the move cruel and heartless.
More than 125,000 people joined an online petition campaign asking for mercy. The Georgia branch of the NAACP called the case against the single black mother a "grave miscarriage of justice." And the judge said her office had been flooded with letters and emails from around the country.
The accident happened in April 2010 along a busy five-lane street.
Nelson and her three children had just gotten off a bus after a long day, and she was eager to return home because it was getting dark, said her lawyer, David Savoy. Instead of walking to a crosswalk three-tenths of a mile away, she led her children to a median. According to testimony, her daughter darted across the street and son A.J. followed.
She chased after them and was struck and injured.
The driver, Jerry Guy, pleaded guilty to hit-and-run. According to court records, he had been drinking earlier in the day while taking pain medication, was partially blind in one eye, and had two previous hit-and-run convictions from 1997.
As for the decision to charge Nelson, too, "these cases are inherently difficult because they are unintentional," prosecutor Annamarie Baltz explained. "But the state is bound to uphold the law."
Nevertheless, Baltz asked for probation for Nelson and said prosecutors never intended to send her to prison.
In an appearance on NBC's "Today" show Monday, Nelson said: "I think to come after me so much harder than they did after him is a slap in the face. This will never end for me."
Savoy argued that his client has already suffered enough for her mistake. He said prosecutors would never charge a parent who accidentally left open a pool gate if a child drowned, or a parent who fed a hot dog to a youngster who choked on it.
"Do not make A.J.'s death an act that washes over this family like a tidal wave," he said. "There's no legitimate basis to make this family continue to suffer."
Inside the courthouse, Nelson's supporters gathered in the halls for a prayer vigil and urged the judge not to punish her any further.
"Every day she gets up, she pays her debt," said Beverly Word, who was A.J.'s preschool teacher.
Advocates seized on the case as evidence that the car-choked Atlanta metropolitan area needs better crosswalks.
"It's really cruel and a big waste of taxpayer money" to prosecute Nelson, said Sally Flocks, founder of PEDS, an Atlanta pedestrian advocacy group. "What is anybody going to learn from this? Raquel lost her precious son. The lesson she learned already is quit using transit and buy a car to get around. It's too dangerous to cross the streets here."
The case has been the talk of Georgia legal circles.
J. Tom Morgan, a former DeKalb County district attorney who specialized in the prosecution of crimes against children, said he was surprised prosecutors targeted Nelson.
"She wasn't out drinking," he said. "In a case like this where the mother suffered the tragic loss of a child, and there's no gross negligence, I wouldn't have involved the criminal justice system."
And W. Scott Smith, a defense attorney, said he has never heard of a similar prosecution in his 11 years in practice.
"It's one of those things that if you're the state, you've got to use common sense. The person is going to live with themselves the rest of their lives," he said.