Wednesday, 20 July 2011

What happens to justice in the ultimate car-centric society

It goes bonkers:
Enter the Marietta, Georgia, case of 30-year-old Raquel Nelson, which has been bandied about in the comments section the last few days. Last April, Nelson was crossing a street with her three children when her 4-year-old was struck and killed by a car. She was crossing at an intersection, but was apparently not in a designated crosswalk. The driver who killed her had been drinking, taking painkillers, and was blind in one eye. He also has two prior hit-and-run convictions. Nelson and her daughter were also struck and injured. Residents of Nelson’s apartment building have complained to the city about the intersection. The nearest crosswalk is a half mile away.
If we have as little to fear from overly aggressive prosecutors as supporters of Caylee’s Law claim, we could expect the prosecutor in this case to show some discretion and mercy for Nelson, right? Yes, she admits to jaywalking. Yes, she erred, and subjected her kids to unnecessary risk. But she just lost her son. It’s hard to fathom a more punishing, heartbreaking sentence. Moreover, the underlying “crime” here was a misdemeanor, one most of us commit every day. So mercy, right?
Of course not. Nelson was charged with second-degree vehicular homicide. Which is insane. She was convicted last week. When she’s sentenced later this month, she could spend more time in jail than the man who struck and killed her son.
Interestingly, the perspective of the "radical" US website from which this snippet is taken, though critical of this case, is not really critical on the grounds that I think UK and European readers of this blog would be. The "radical" US perspective is to see this as about "justice" that might be tempered by "mercy" in the case of an "accident", not about apportioning blame for deaths in a transport culture where the rules have been written by and for motorists: "She erred, and subjected her kids to unnecessary risk," says even this apparently "left-wing" US commentator, seemingly oblivious to where the actual blame for the death lies. And we don't read anything clear about what happened to the driver. But elsewhere we can discover:
Jerry L. Guy, the driver who admitted hitting the child when pleading guilty to hit-and-run, served a 6-month sentence. He was released Oct. 29, 2010, and will serve the remainder of a 5-year sentence on probation....
Guy was originally charged with hit and run, first degree homicide by vehicle and cruelty to children. Charges were later dropped to just the hit and run charge.
Court records show that Guy was previously convicted of two-hit-and-runs on the same day, Feb. 17, 1997.
The first hit-and-run also happened on Austell Road, but when Guy fled from that scene he hit another car, seriously injuring that driver and passenger, records show.
Guy pleaded guilty and received a two-year prison sentence, but was out in less than a year.
There are major cultural and legal differences between the UK and the USA. In the UK, thankfully, there is still no legal concept of "jaywalking" (though many British people have picked this term up from US sources, and use it, incorrectly). In the UK it is, at least in theory, legal to walk on roads and to cross them at any point (excepting motorways), though it is against the Highway Code to cross on zig-zag markings near zebra crossings. In the UK we are a long way from parents being prosecuted for negligence for allowing their children to cross the road in an unwise place, though the argument of negligence is often used in such cases by the lawyers for insurance companies to try to reduce civil damage claims (as they also try to paint cycling victims as "negligent" for not wearing helmets).

It seems to me to be bizarre that both Labour and Conservative UK governments seem to have been fixated with the idea of importing justice and law-and-order related concepts from the United States. From the United States of all places! The United States, which has 0.74% of its population imprisoned! The latest example of this is David Cameron's plan to put elected Police Commissioners in charge of fighting crime in the localities of the UK, a very American concept – an idea which risks the populism, inconsistency, illogicality and political reversibility that characterises US crime-fighting. It is not in the British tradition to elect, on an individual, personal basis, those involved with the administration of the justice system, nor is there the slightest argument for it. There is no more argument for it than for electing who should be in charge of the armed forces. These roles should be independent, professional ones, supervised in a general way by national and local elected politicians.

So far, that (occasional) repository of wisdom the House of Lords has blocked the elected commissioners idea, but the government is still saying it wishes to overrule them, and press ahead with it. This is a not very high profile political issue which is nevertheless of the highest importance. It is an issue people should agitate on, both on grounds of general good-sense, and on grounds of the possible effects on transport justice – with the possibility under elected commissioners of an even more populist, unfair treatment of road crime that gives even less justice to vulnerable road-users.

We don't want the UK going further down the law-and-order basket-case trail blazed by the USA. We don't want mothers imprisoned for having let their slaughtered children cross the roads.


  1. It's even worse.

    First of all the situation: because you cannot leave a child of that age alone at home without getting Child Protection Services after you, the mother had to take her three children with her grocery shopping.

    She did not have a car so she had to take two buses. After the first she had to wait for more than an hour for the second to turn up. (picture her with three under ten year olds and two and a bag of groceries, please)

    The bus stop, where she and the children got out, was at that intersection and in view of her apartment. The nearest designated crosswalk was a kilometre away, so she crossed at the intersection, stopping (giving way to traffic) in the right place.

    Unfortunately, her 4 year old (who could see his house and was probably tired out after the long commute) wriggled away and got hit by a drunk, blind-in-one-eye, repeated hit-and-run driver.

    And you know what? Everything she did was LEGAL!!

    In Georgia, apparanly, it is legal for pedestrians to cross at an intersection, as long as they give way to traffic (which she did).

    The woman, in short, got sentenced for a longer jailtime than the driver because her 4 year old wriggled free and had the misfortune by being hit by a drunk driver.

    And you know how I know this?

    I picked this up yesterday on another blog, where several (American) women argued that (I quote), "You shouldn't have children if you can't afford a car".

  2. Hmm. The assumption being that nobody would choose not to have a car if they could afford one, because not to have one would be taken as itself negligent. So this is not just about motor-centrism, its all connected in the American context with wealth and class. It's like the attacks we have sometimes had from UK politicians on poor people who have "too many children".

    Thanks for the info Marion.