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Randall Nelson, 2008
*On this date in 2008, a teenage Black student was acquitted of felony second-degree assault in his school. Randall Nelson broke the jaw of a white schoolmate who taunted him with racial slurs in their Steamboat spring Colorado Middle School.
It took 40 minutes for the all-white jury in Steamboat Springs to reach a verdict. Nelson, 15, said he was defending himself after the teenager threatened him, used the N-word, and told Nelson that he was "going to make him his slave." Nelson's attorney, Kristopher Hammond, said, "the white student would make a whipping sound when he saw Randall in the hall and say things like 'Boy, come over here and shine my shoes."
Nelson was the only Black student at Steamboat Springs Middle School at the time of the incident. The Nelson family moved to Steamboat Springs when he was in sixth grade. The racism began two years ago when an older boy sucker-punched him in the school lunchroom. Nelson did not fight back. The next year, that boy, who wasn't the one involved in the February incident, came from Steamboat Springs High School with his friends and tried to pick a fight. Nelson said he didn't want to fight.
The Routt County Sheriff's Office investigated that incident, and a deputy testified at trial that he told Nelson that he had the right to defend himself and that if he ever felt threatened to make a fist and punch the guy in the mouth. In February, Nelson was in the school gym when the 14-year-old walked in with a friend and asked, "Where is my slave boy?" The friend pushed Nelson, and then the teen stepped toward him. Nelson punched him and broke the teen's jaw. Hammond says the teen, who has since moved away, was in the hospital for surgery on his jaw.
He faced a year of out-of-home placement or juvenile detention if he had been convicted. Juror Janet Hawkinson was disgusted that the case even went to trial. "Why did this case come this far?" she said. "And why did our DA prosecute this case, spend tax dollars, and take a child to trial who is an A-B student in sports and spoken highly of?" A prosecutor in the 14th judicial district attorney's office declined to discuss the case. "All the information would be in the court file," the prosecutor said. "We don't make comments on our cases."
During deliberations, Hawkinson said, the jury decided to take the racial elements out and consider whether anyone, regardless of color, would have felt threatened in Nelson's situation. "You have two people walk across and come threaten you; it puts you in a defensive position," she said. Nelson, a 2008 high school freshman, said he was relieved when the verdict was announced because, for the past year, he has felt the stress of the trial and watched it weigh on his family. "I think the outcome was the right thing," he said.
Nelson, while uncomfortable with the attention his case has brought, wanted other kids who may find themselves in the position he was in to stay strong. "I would tell them everything is going to be fine," he said. "Just stick with it, and everything will work out the way things should."