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Judge Ignores Critical Evidence in Trial of Cyclist's Killer
In a move that has stunned and outraged the Bay Area's bike community, retired Judge Herb Donaldson ruled felony charges cannot be brought against truck driver Rueben Espinosa. Espinosa ran over and killed 30 year old Chris Robertson with his 18 wheel truck 5 months ago, in an incident many cyclists openly refer to as murder. Local bike activists are outraged, calling for a massive turnout at this month's April 27 Critical Mass bike ride in San Francisco, to protest the failure of the justice system to protect cyclists.
First he was run down by a trucker; now by the \"justice\" system. San Francisco cyclist Chris Robertson, 30, was crushed beneath Rueben Espinosa\'s 18-wheeler last Nov. 17 on Fourth Street as he and several other cyclists returned from a slain friend\'s memorial service. After months of delays by the DA\'s office, and a shoddy initial investigation by police, the truck driver was finally arrested and charged with felony vehicular manslaughter, assault with intent to commit great bodily harm, and assault with a deadly weapon.
Already a two-time loser, Espinosa\'s record revealed two prior felony convictions. San Francisco district attorney\'s office Fred Gardner reported the following: in 1993, Espinosa assaulted his ex-wife with a knife and burglarized a residence; and in 1979, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and conspiracy to commit voluntary manslaughter. A third conviction would have sent Espinosa to jail for life under California law. Though friends of Espinosa claim the truck driver is upset over the death, no expression of remorse or apology has ever been offered by the defendant. Cyclists attending the hearings remarked on Espinosa\'s smirking throughout the pretrial hearings.
Tuesday, April 17, the [in]justice system delivered its latest slap in the face to the bicycle community, exactly five months after Robertson\'s death. This ruling comes after two days of testimony about Espinosa\'s threatening actions. As reported in the SF Exmainer, Assistant District Attorney Murlene Randel\'s first witness was Adele Gaskin, who testified that she watched in horror as Espinosa\'s truck ran Robertson down. Gaskin said the truck, heading south, swerved into the northbound lanes of Fourth Street, striking the bicyclist on the passenger side of the vehicle. Gaskin was following the truck in her car at the time. Other witnesses testified that a wooden block was thrown from the truck, resulting in the assault charges. Even Espinosa acknowledged that he had been involved in a \"game of chicken\" with the bike riders. Despite this assaultive behavior, retired Judge Herb Donaldson ruled there was no proof of gross negligence as required by law for the involuntary manslaughter charge, and reduced two assault charges against Espinosa to misdemeanors.
Cyclists and the DA were both stunned and outraged by the ruling. The SF Chronicle reported that after the ruling, Murlene Randle, the prosecutor in the case, met with District Attorney Terence Hallinan. \"I think the judge was wrong,\" she said. \"I\'m surprised. I believe the totality of the evidence demonstrated negligence on the part of the defendant.\" She said the fact that Espinosa had made the statement that he was playing chicken with the cyclists was a sign of negligence.
Bike advocates who have followed the case agreed. \"I can\'t believe it,\" said Dave Snyder, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. \"It seems to me pretty clear from everything I heard that there is no dispute that there was a fight between the two of them and that this man ran over this person in anger.\" \"I\'m trying to figure out what the sense of it is,\" he said. \"That\'s crazy - - the judge is basically saying if you want to murder someone, do it with your car, and don\'t throw something at them first. I cannot make sense of this at all.\" Jon Winston remarked \"Its obvious now that we will get no justice. Let\'s be very angry but let\'s be creative and nonviolent in how we express it.\" Had Espinosa used a gun instead of a truck, there is no doubt the charges would remain.
Dozens of pedestrians and cyclists were critically hurt or fatally injured last year on San Francisco\'s increasingly hostile streets, prompting a citizen outcry for the police and DA\'s office to take road rage incidents more seriously. In the case of cyclists, police often refuse to take complaints of road rage, or assist cyclists who are the victims of this anger. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (http://www.sfbike.com) has been documenting the many cases of police neglecting their duty to protect the public. Leah Shahum, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, observed \"In too many cases when motorists hit bicyclists, they are treated simply as an accident.\" The Bicycle Civil Liberties Union (http://www.bclu.org) also works to promote bike access and documents the justice system\'s bias against nonmotorized road users.
Though attorneys for the defense feel the case was overcharged, cyclists see the ruling as yet another example of anti-bike bias, and a justice system that fails to protect vulnerable road users. All too often, police and the DA let negligent motorists walk without so much as a ticket, with the simple excuse \"I didn\'t see him.\" Local bike messenger unions are discussing a strike to protest unsafe working conditions, charging: \"the City & County of SF and the State of California through insufficient laws and enforcement permit murder of cyclists.\" Cyclists held an emergency meeting last night to respond to the ruling they view as unjust. Many are quietly mulling a massive turnout for this month\'s Critical Mass ride in San Francisco, to send a message on the failure of the justice system to protect them. As one person observed:
\"2000+ bicyclists can shut down a major American City ANYTIME.
A27 SHUT DOWN SF - By any means necessary!!!\"
Latest news on the case:
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Before he died, Chris Robertson had planned to do the California AIDS ride for the 2nd time this upcoming June. His team members from the last ride will be sponsoring his rider #2115. Chris\' family and friends will be also be riding and crewing in his honor on Calif AIDS ride 8. You can send a donation on Chris\' behalf by using his rider number and going to this site: http://www.sfafpledge.org/sponsor.html.