Cops, Courts & Prisons


Originally published in the Spring 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 68, printed April 21. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Spring 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For other issues dating back to 2012, see the Full Issues page.

By Whitney Moore

Alecia Nelson, an assistant teacher at Westover Hills Elementary School on Richmond’s South Side, stopped by the Family Dollar on Westover Hills Boulevard March 7 to buy snacks for her daughter’s third-grade class at the school. According to her attorney, David Whaley, “She was buying candy and snacks to encourage kids to do well in school – rewards for children who don’t get a lot of positive reinforcement.”

After checking out, Nelson was attempting to leave the store when she was confronted by Richmond police officer Graham Lang, who was responding to a call about suspected shoplifting. Nelson is African-American; Lang is white. A scuffle ensued and another customer in the store, Joshua Carter, 28, was able to capture a video of what happened next.

The now-viral video (available here) shows Lang kneeling on Nelson’s back as she lies facedown with her right arm handcuffed behind her. She is screaming, “I can’t breathe!” and pleads for someone to call 911. Once Nelson is subdued, Lang is seen shoving another Black woman who was holding Nelson’s purse and then approaching and shoving Carter, also Black, as he continues to film the encounter. The video doesn’t show what led up to Lang’s actions.

According to Nelson, doctors have since diagnosed her with an acute concussion and post-concussion syndrome. She said she also has been placed on administrative leave without pay from her job due to the charge she now faces: assault on a law enforcement officer, a Class 6 felony. Her attorney said that, if convicted, she could face a mandatory six months in jail, with no option for house arrest.

The criminal complaint alleges that Nelson initially pulled away from Lang when he tried to detain her, struck him and scratched his face and neck. Carter has stated that Lang hurt himself when he fell into a gumball machine while trying to arrest Nelson.

Nelson was not charged with shoplifting. She says this is the second time the same store has falsely accused her of stealing.

“The first time, no cops were called, the store just asked to see inside my purse, which I opened and showed them,” she told the Defender. “Nothing was stolen. If they would have just asked to see inside my purse this time, all this would have never happened.”

Both Nelson and Carter have filed complaints about Lang with the Richmond Police Department’s Internal Affairs unit, alleging assault and excessive force. As of presstime, the police investigation is still ongoing and Lang is still on active duty.

The community has demanded justice for Nelson’s violent arrest. On March 12, supporters, including members of the Original Black Panthers of Richmond, Virginia; the Black Power Movement; and the Virginia Defenders protested outside the Family Dollar store. Management’s response was to shut down the store for the day.

Nelson’s preliminary hearing was April 8, but both the prosecutors and defense requested a continuance because the police body cam footage had not been released in time for both sides to review it before the hearing.

Eight days later, attorney Whaley said he still had not received the footage.

The preliminary hearing is now scheduled for 10 a.m. on June 3 in Courtroom 10 of the John Marshall Courts Building, 400 N. 9th St. in downtown Richmond.

“I just want justice,” Nelson told the Defender. “I don’t want anyone else to have to go through something like this.”

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