|San Francisco Examiner * April
Hearing begins in bicyclist's death
By Dan Evans
of the Examiner Staff
As bicyclists and truckers watched each other icily from across the
courtroom, prosecutors began calling witnesses Thursday to convince a
San Francisco judge that a truck driver suspected of striking and
killing a bicycle messenger in November should be brought to trial.
Trucker Rueben Espinoza, who showed up in court dressed in a
jail-issue day-glo orange sweatshirt and pants, was driving down
Fourth Street Nov. 17 when he allegedly threw a wooden block at
bicycle messenger Chris Robertson, 30, swerved into Robertson's path,
and ran him down.
The real adversaries in the courtroom Thursday were bicyclists and
truckers. The right side of the court's gallery was given over to
Robertson supporters, who openly expressed their belief that Espinoza
murdered their friend. Entering the courtroom, the mostly bespectacled
bikers doffed their helmets, revealing the hairstyle common to their
On the left side of the courtroom -- the side where Espinoza and his
defense attorneys sat -- was a smaller, quieter group. Where
Robertson's supporters chatted while waiting for the hearing to begin,
the truckers -- identifiable by their Teamsters union jackets -- sat
Robertson's mother, Fran, who received greetings and hugs from the
dozen-and-a-half members of the biking community present, said the
hearing was hard to watch.
"It's extremely tough," she said. "It's reliving what happened four
months ago all over again."
San Francisco police arrested Espinoza, 43, on Feb. 5. Prosecutors are
asking San Francisco Superior Court Judge Herbert Donaldson to hold
Espinoza over for trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter,
assault with a deadly weapon and assault with force likely to produce
great bodily injury.
Bail for Espinoza was originally set at $2 million, but his attorneys
appeared in court Feb. 26 with nearly 40 letters of support for the
trucker, asking that the amount be reduced. A separate judge, Cynthia
Ming Mei-Lee, reduced the bail to $1.5 million, though Espinoza was
still unable to raise the money.
The hearing is expected to last until this afternoon. But since
Assistant District Attorney Murlene Randel only has to prove probable
cause -- meaning it is more likely than not that Espinoza committed
the crimes -- the outcome is all but certain.
Randel's first witness was Adele Gaskin, who testified that she
watched in horror as Espinoza'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.
But under cross-examination from Espinoza's attorney, Charles Smith,
she acknowledged she told prosecutors during an interview Dec. 7 that
Robertson was struck on the driver's side. She said it was a mistake
brought on by her distress from witnessing the death.
"As I said, again, sir," said a somewhat agitated Gaskin, "I clearly
saw this happen."
Robertson's death has pitted members of San Francisco's bicycle
messengers against truckers. The bicyclists have also lashed out
against police, claiming cops turn a blind eye to cyclists' rights.
Police officials have categorically denied those claims.
One man, wearing a black nylon union jacket, complained everyone has
been focusing on the bicyclists' issues. Everyone is willfully
ignoring the fact that it was an accident, he said. But another man,
dressed in a light blue polo shirt, almost immediately stopped the
conversation, saying Espinoza's lawyers -- Smith and San Mateo
attorney Michael Devoy -- told them not to talk to reporters. Neither
would give his name.
Giving the case additional weight, a conviction would give Espinoza
his third strike, which under California law would send him to jail
for life. He was convicted in 1979 of voluntary manslaughter and in
1993 of assault with a deadly weapon.
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