Second-year Jessica Nelson claims she has been ‘wronged by the whole process’ and launches petition
Original: The Cavalier Daily, November 20, 2017
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After two hard ciders, two margaritas and an estimated eight drinks later, rising second-year College student Jessica Nelson had consumed enough alcohol to black out. Nelson’s friend, Audrey Kent, who was also a rising second-year College student, found her unconscious, unresponsive and surrounded by a pool of vomit in the stairwell of the apartment where they had been pregaming together.
Kent took her to the hospital for treatment, but on Sunday morning, Nelson awoke not in hospital room, but in a jail cell with her face plastered to a vomit-filled pillow.
It was July 8, 2017, the Saturday of Midsummers — the famed weekend where University students return to Grounds typically to party with friends.
Nelson began the day drinking around 3 p.m., and continued into the evening. What started as a day of leisurely drinking quickly catapulted into a night involving potential alcohol poisoning and University Police officers charging her with felony assault and battery, among other things.
Nelson was arrested right outside the University of Virginia Medical Center’s doors and did not receive any medical attention after an incident in which she allegedly made contact with one of the officer’s faces and was taken to the ground. Kent, who saw her friend get tackled, was also arrested after refusing to leave her friend alone with the officers.
Nelson has no memory of this night, but bases her statements off of police body cam videos and Kent’s account of events. Both girls were underage.
After finding Nelson passed out in the stairwell, Kent said she decided to call an Uber to take her home. Upon noticing Nelson’s condition, the Uber driver suggested they should take her to the hospital. Kent agreed, and the two girls were dropped off by the main entrance of the hospital.
“The main entrance closes at 9 p.m. which I didn’t know,” Kent said in an interview. “So we got out and knocked on the door and a couple people came out and said, ‘Oh, we’re closed — the emergency room is that way,’ and directed us.”
As they were making their way to the emergency room, Nelson collapsed.
“She couldn’t really walk on her own. She was leaning on me, and I was kind of carrying her so when she collapsed I couldn’t get her back up and into the hospital on my own,” Kent said. “So I called 911 because I didn’t want to leave her passed out on the ground while I walked inside.”
The operator answered the call, “911, what is your emergency?”
“Okay so I’m right outside the emergency room in Charlottesville, but my friend is like passed out on the grass, and I can’t move her into the emergency room, can you have someone come help us?” Kent said over the phone.
The operator’s voice was warm and friendly. “Oh yeah, sure I can get someone out there,” she said.
She then asked what was wrong with Nelson.
“She’s just passed out,” Kent said. “She just needs help, and I can’t get her in — ”
The operator cut Kent off. “Why is she passed out though?”
“I just need help, can you please — ” Kent said, sounding frantic as the operator cut in again with what seems to be a more demanding tone. She told Kent to answer her questions.
“Has she been drinking?” the operator asked. The question was followed by silence. The phone call ended.
Soon after, according to police body camera footage, University Police Department officers — Officer Oladeji Ayodele Oke and Officer Scott Smallwood — arrived onto the scene where Kent was holding Nelson, who was slumped across her arms.
“We’re going to get you help, okay? … It’s okay,” Kent said in the footage, trying to comfort Nelson. “We’re going to walk with this nice guy. He’s my friend, okay?”
In the body camera footage, Oke told the two girls to sit on a bench and placed Nelson, who was unconscious, on her side. He also called for a mobile rescue squad.
“I immediately called for rescue due to her condition,” Oke wrote in his police report. “Though we were near the emergency room, I knew that going to the emergency room will delay her from getting the immediate help she needed.”
The officers began asking for Nelson’s identification, and Kent responded with an expletive saying she didn’t know where it was.
“Listen ma’am, we’re not cursing at you. We’re not being disrespectful. We’re trying to help your friend,” Oke said.
“I’m scared,” Kent replied.
It took roughly eight minutes for the mobile rescue squad to arrive. They seated Nelson in a wheelchair and began rolling her up towards the hospital. As they were approaching the hospital doors, Nelson got out of the wheelchair and started running along the sidewalk towards the entrance.
In the body camera footage, Oke chased after her and grabbed her arms once he caught up to her. Nelson said she was okay and couldn’t pay for the hospital visit, and then began waving her arms and telling Oke to look at her. Oke then pushed her to the ground and put one of her arms behind her back.
“The next time you hit me in my face, you are going to jail,” Oke yelled in the body cam video. It’s not clear from the video what exactly the alleged physical contact looked like.
In his police report, Oke claims Nelson slapped him.
“When we came to a stop, she still tried to get away. When I turned her around, she struck me in the face with an open hand above my eye,” Oke wrote in his police report. “After realizing that she slapped me, I took her to the ground and put her right hand behind her back.”
However, Nelson later characterized the incident as something other than a slap and said she felt it wasn’t clear from the video what happened since Oke was holding her arms.
“I wasn’t trying to actually make contact with his face if that makes sense,” Nelson said in an interview. “I waved my arms on purpose but it was to wave my arms up at him to get his attention but not to hit him.”
Kent said she did not see the altercation, but did watch the officer take her friend to the ground.
Nelson was placed back in the wheelchair, and the two officers conversed for a few minutes before deciding to place her under arrest for being drunk in public. Oke alleged in his police report that it was “apparent she had no intentions of going to the ER for treatment.” After viewing the body cam footage, however, Nelson said she would have been okay with getting treatment after being placed in the wheelchair.
“Yeah, I was already sitting in the wheelchair,” Nelson said. “They pulled me out of the wheelchair, put me in a cop car and took me to jail. I don’t think that in that moment — I wasn’t doing anything that suggested — there’s nothing that changed. I was sitting in the chair. It was a decision they made for me.”
Nelson was later charged with felony assault on a law enforcement officer, underage possession of alcohol and possession of fictitious identification. After refusing to leave the scene, Kent was also arrested and charged with being drunk in public, possessing a fake ID and underage possession of alcohol.
“I was like, ‘I just watched your buddy over there tackle my friend to the ground while you did nothing. I don’t trust you and for her personal safety I’m not leaving her. I’ll come with you to jail or whatever,’” Kent said in a later interview with The Cavalier Daily. “And he was like, ‘Oh you’re not leaving? We’re going to arrest you too.’”
The girls spent the night in a jail cell together. Nelson was breathalyzed at approximately 7 a.m., 11 a.m and 2 p.m. the next day. She was released around 2:30 p.m. according to an investigator’s report for the University Judiciary Committee.
In the following days, Nelson hired André Hakes, a lawyer from Albemarle County law firm Tucker Griffin Barnes, to represent her in court. Hakes subpoenaed the 911 call center for the audio recording of Kent’s call and the University for the purpose of obtaining the body cam videos.
Charlottesville Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman prosecuted the case.
According to Nelson, Chapman offered her a plea deal — all other charges would be dropped if she pled guilty to a misdemeanor assault and battery instead of a felony assault and battery, which carries a minimum six-month sentence if convicted.
Hakes continued Nelson’s court date one time in the hopes of receiving the officer’s body cam footage. Nelson alleged that the prosecution was threatening to pull the plea deal if the court hearing was delayed any longer, and Hakes advised her to plead guilty to the misdemeanor because it was a good deal.
Without the videos, Nelson said she took Hakes’ advice and pled guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery Sept. 5. The terms of the plea deal also dictated she must refrain from drug and alcohol use, maintain two years of good behavior, complete 50 hours of community service, do an assessment with the Office of Offender Aid and Restoration, follow up with the OAR for regular drug and alcohol testing and a 90-day suspended jail sentence.
Hakes and Chapman did not return multiple requests for comment.
Ultimately, it took over a month for the University to reply to the subpoena, Nelson said. The videos, which contained hours of footage, did not arrive until after she pled guilty in Charlottesville General District Court — three days before she underwent her UJC trial.
“We had UJC trials too, which was even a worse process for me honestly because it was fellow students,” Nelson said. “They made me feel like you don’t deserve to be a student just because you made one mistake.”
Any students who are arrested or violate the at the University must also undergo a trial with the University Judiciary Committee, which is run by students. UJC is able to impose sanctions such as community service, oral admonition and expulsion.
Nelson’s UJC trial took place Sept. 11. Oke and Assoc. Dean of Students Julie Caruccio, who was the dean on call at the time of the incident, were co-complainants and testified against her. Casey Schmidt, a fourth-year College student and senior UJC counselor, represented Nelson.
Students facing a UJC trial have the option to open the trial to the public or to keep the trial private. In the case of a private trial, trial proceedings and documents are kept confidential. Nelson chose to keep the trial private, but later shared documents from her case with The Cavalier Daily.
“I could’ve opened the trial if I wanted to, but I didn’t think anyone was going to listen,” Nelson said. “I was really upset the whole time during the trial. It was a hard process to go through after you’ve already been through so much with regular court.”
Although the body cam videos were in her possession, Schmidt advised her in an email not to use them, because he said the footage painted Nelson and Kent in a “pretty bad light with regards to being polite and compliant with the police officers.”
“I agree that it does make the actual physical contact look less clear cut and intentional. But according to the complainant counselor, Officer Oke isn’t going to claim that it was intentional or malicious as opposed to just a drunk flailing of arms,” Schmidt wrote. “I think it increases our odds of suspension, but ultimately though it is your decision.”
The discussion between the counselors involved in the case that Schmidt mentioned in his email took place in a pretrial meeting, which Kent and Nelson were not a part of. As a result of that meeting, Kent alleged she was asked to change the wording of her testimony to a softer description of the “tackle” she witnessed and she was led to believe Oke would be calling the physical contact a “drunk flailing of the arms” in return.
However, during the actual trial, Nelson said Oke did not characterize the altercation as a drunk flailing of the arms, but as a slap. According to UJC trial documents, Oke did admit during the trial that the “slap did not cause any pain … it didn’t cause any sort of bruises. It was an open palm slap, and it … caught some of my eye. But it did not hurt.”
Kent said she regrets changing her wording to a softer description of “the tackle,” she saw after the altercation between Nelson and Oke because she feels Oke didn’t keep up his end of what she took to be a deal discussed in the pretrial meeting.
“I had to alter what I was saying because I was going to be like, ‘From my perspective he tackled her unnecessarily,’” Kent said. “So instead I was like, ‘He was trying to stop her, trying to help her and then he took her to the ground somehow.’ I was very kind about it where I shouldn’t have been.”
UJC based their findings primarily off of the police report from the night Nelson was arrested and the fact that Nelson had already pled guilty in district court. Nelson pled guilty to violating Standards 1, 6, 8 and 12, which are physical assault, violation of University policies, disorderly conduct and failure to comply with directions of University individuals, respectively.
Nelson was given 70 additional community service hours to be completed with University Facilities Management. She was also mandated to write essays reflecting on her actions and had to do a ride-along with the officer who arrested her.
“Everyone at UJC is obsessed with taking responsibility. I take responsibility for drinking too much that night. I fully understand how wrong and awful that was, but that’s what I take responsibility for,” Nelson said. “They were like, You pled guilty to assault so you have to take responsibility for assault and not being cooperative and disorderly conduct and all this other stuff.’”
Nelson said she appealed her UJC trial because she felt “wronged by the whole process.” The appeal presented the body cam footage — which Nelson had only viewed one time before the trial in her lawyer’s office — as new evidence and requested that the Judicial Review Board view the video because it could have “enormous impact on the sanctions prescribed by providing information, context and insight into how the officers handled the incident,” Nelson wrote in her appeal.
When Schmidt reviewed the video in Hakes’ office before the trial, he took notes which were then used during Nelson’s UJC trial. In her appeal, Nelson alleged some of the quotes were erroneously attributed to her when they were actually said by Kent.
Nelson also brought up the pretrial meeting agreement that she said she believed was violated during the trial and asked for a “more reasonable” community service penalty of 30 hours, as well as the opportunity to work at the Gordie Center for Alcohol Abuse instead of University Facilities Management.
“[The trial chair was] like, ‘Oh, community service, it’s educative.’ It’s not. All it is is a waste of your time,” Nelson said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “Last time I did it, I rode around in a facilities management truck salting some ice and raked a couple leaves, but it wasn’t like I was either working hard or making something. It was just me working alongside of these workers. I honestly spent the majority of my time sitting in a truck.”
In sum, her appeal claimed there was new evidence to the case, procedural errors and unduly harsh sanctions.
The UJC pushed back on Nelson’s claims in a letter signed by Jack Brake, on behalf of the committee. Brake, a fourth-year College student and UJC’s vice chair for trials, presided over Nelson’s case as trial chair.
He wrote that the assurance Schmidt gave Nelson that Oke would characterize the physical contact as a drunk flailing of the arms was a “prediction, not a promise,” and therefore did not constitute a procedural error.
Brake also said 120-150 hours of community service was the norm for cases at this level, and UJC had mandated 70 hours to add to her 50 court-ordered hours so there would be a total of 120 hours.
Brake disagreed that the video constituted new evidence because Nelson “had access to it, and adequate time to review it, before the Trial” and that “it would not have ‘very likely affected the outcome of the UJC Trial.’”
Nelson’s appeal was denied.
For the most part, the Judicial Review Board, chaired by Dean Jill Rockwell, concurred with the points raised by the UJC. In a five-page letter from Rockwell outlining the Judicial Review Board’s position, the JRB rejected Nelson’s claims.
In response to Nelson’s claim that a pretrial agreement was violated, Rockwell wrote, “The JRB urges careful UJC oversight of such communications among the parties and witnesses, but we do not find reversible error in this instance.”
Rockwell also noted the JRB made its decision knowing it was Nelson’s second UJC offense — the first being a non-alcohol related offense during her first year.
“The JRB panelists were relieved to know that Ms. Nelson has recovered physically from her extremely dangerous behavior,” Rockwell wrote. “Notwithstanding, they were equally troubled that she chose to appeal a sanction based on extreme behavior that, in the panelists’ estimation, could have warranted a permanent expulsion from the University.”
Brake did not respond to a request for comment.
Schmidt and Annabel Hungate, a fourth-year College student and UJC senior investigator, referred The Cavalier Daily’s inquiries to Peter Bautz, a fourth-year College student and UJC chair. As chair, Bautz said in an email that he is the only member of the Committee who is authorized to speak on behalf of UJC, but said “due to student privacy concerns, the UJC has a policy of not commenting on individual cases.”
Inquiries to UPD, Caruccio, Rockwell and Bautz were referred to University Spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn, who said in an email to The Cavalier Daily that the University has launched an investigation into the incident at the request of one of the girls’ fathers.
“The complaint was investigated in accordance with departmental policy. The investigation revealed no impropriety or policy violations associated with the arrest of the students,” de Bruyn said. “The investigation did reveal that after the students’ arrest, officers should have better secured one of the detainees in their vehicle for transport to jail and should have used their body-worn camera throughout the entire encounter, including during the transport. Appropriate follow-up on these two issues already has occurred.”
De Bruyn also explained the officer’s decision to arrest Nelson.
“University Police called rescue to the scene and [when] rescue attempted to transport one student to the hospital, the student attempted to run away to avoid going to the hospital,” de Bruyn said. “In cases like this one, where there is no medical emergency and an individual who is intoxicated will not go to the hospital, the alternative is to remand them to jail until they can sober up.”
Nelson said that she takes issue with this procedural protocol and has since launched an online , accompanied by a professionally produced her father had made using body cam footage and clips of the girls explaining the incident together. As of this article’s publishing, the petition had over 1,300 supporters.
“Now my focus is on changing the protocol, because I shouldn’t have been arrested in the first case,” Nelson said. “I think that’s a ridiculous protocol.”
De Bruyn emphasized in his response “that the University continues to encourage students to seek care whenever they may have had too much to drink or for any other medical condition.”
However, when asked if she would want Kent to call 911 again in hindsight, Nelson had a tough time answering.
“Honestly, I’m not sure,” Nelson said. “I don’t trust it anymore — not under the current protocol, probably not, which is a horrible thing to say because people die of alcohol poisoning all the time so that’s why I think we really need to change the protocol.”