By Michelle Powers
“Unbelievably, they have lived all these years.” Elsa Mauer Nicodemus is talking about the potted plants on her windowsill. But, they aren’t just ordinary plants. They used to belong to her daughter.
In 2015, Victoria Nicodemus was 30-years-old and living her dream in Brooklyn. She was a thriving art curator, with installations dotting New York City and the country. Marriage was in her future. Now, when Elsa looks at pictures of her daughter, she says, “I smell her, I can feel her and I can touch her.” But she can no longer hold her. Now, all Elsa and her family wants is justice.
On Dec. 6, 2015, Victoria’s bright future was cut short on a Brooklyn sidewalk. She was out Christmas shopping when a Chevy Suburban drifted onto the sidewalk on Fulton Street, hitting Victoria and her boyfriend. He survived, but Victoria died.
Holding back tears, Elsa recalls the painful weeks after her daughter was killed, “We had a closed coffin. She bled out on the street. It was just devastating. When you bring a life into this world, you don’t expect it to leave before you.”Now, more than three years later, the Nicodemus family still struggles with Victoria’s death, but they’ve found solace through faith. “I pray to God, I talk to him,” Elsa says, “and I know God’s wheels of justice are always turning.”
Victoria’s older brother, Peter Miller, strongly believes this car crash was not an accident. He says, “This was something that could have been avoided. There were steps all along the way that could have stopped this crash from occurring.” The family now calls the crash a “homicide.” As Victoria’s other brother Hank Miller explains, “Accident is a feel-good term that people use to excuse what is often reckless driving or inattentive driving.”
The family argues that the man behind the wheel of that Chevy, Marlon Sewell, was driving with a suspended license. The deadly collision marked the second time in less than a year that Sewell was caught without one. Not only was the SUV’s inspection expired, but the vehicle also failed inspection prior to the crash. According to NYPD officials on the scene, Sewell told them he felt lightheaded and woozy from car fumes. He also reportedly told police that a month before, the fumes inside his vehicle caused him to pass out before side-swiping a tractor-trailer.
It is common for many people to think that drivers like Sewell face serious charges, but the reality is that unless drugs and alcohol are involved, that is often not the case. Marco Conner, the deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, an organization that works to make New York City’s streets safer for pedestrians, says the majority of drivers who kill pedestrians are not charged. He explains that those who are often facing misdemeanors, from speeding to careless driving, with minimal penalties. Conner goes on to cite a Transportation Alternatives case study for 2015 that found district attorneys in New York City brought charges against less than two percent of drivers who did not flee the scene or were not intoxicated during fatal crashes. “Driving is a privilege, not a right. You are wielding a multi-ton lethal object,” says Conner. “In an instant, you can actually take someone’s life.”
But Victoria was killed on the sidewalk, a place where cars do not have a right, and a place most people assume they are safe. According to data gathered by the Department of Transportation, from 2010 to 2017, 59 people in New York City were killed on a sidewalk. Nationally, more than 500 people’s lives ended the same way. When asked if the family had ever thought about how the justice system worked before the crash, Victoria’s youngest brother, Frank Nicodemus, says, “It’s not until something like this happens to your friends and family that you have this terrible realization about how the system works, and how overwhelmed the system is, the lack of protocol. “The family members feel for other families that have suffered the same fate – sitting through trial after trial, year after year.
When the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office was asked how many crashes it has prosecuted involving a fatality, it did not respond. According to Transportation Alternatives, New York City’s district attorneys do not track or document any cases where people are killed by lawless driving.
The Nicodemus family says the only reason why they are still fighting for justice, is because Victoria would do the same for them. Elsa says, “She would still be fighting for us.” So they continue, with each court conference as painful as the first. When the case originally went to trial, it ended in a mistrial in September, 2017. Since then, the case has been delayed numerous times. Elsa thinks this is just a “scheme of the defense.” She says they want to “push it off until it’s not in people’s memories” and she’s “not going to let that happen.”
Marlon Sewell is facing a retrial. He will eventually be tried again on charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, among others. He is expected to maintain his innocence, but if he is convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.
Frank Nicodemus says that the punishment isn’t the goal. “No punishment could bring her back, but it sends a message that these types of actions aren’t tolerated, and hopefully raises awareness so people think, ‘hey maybe instead of sitting in jail, I should go fix my car’,” he says.
Frank adds with that simple action his sister would have lived to see another day. Elsa, too, doesn’t care so much about the prison time, but hopes that their fight for justice “contributes to changes that will protect the public.”
The family hopes that no other daughter, or son, sister or brother, exists only in yearbooks, photo frames and memories, but instead, they live out the life they loved.