San Francisco Examiner * April 19, 2001

Bicycle death-case charges reduced

By Dan Evans
of the Examiner Staff

San Francisco Superior Court Judge Herbert Donaldson dismissed a charge of vehicular manslaughter against Rueben Espinoza on Tuesday, saying there is not enough evidence to prove the trucker was grossly negligent when he ran down cyclist Chris Robertson, 30, in November.

Donaldson also reduced two other felony charges -- assault with a deadly weapon and assault with intent to cause great bodily injury -- to misdemeanors.

Friends of Robertson said they are enraged by the dismissal of felony charges against the trucker who ran him down. However, they acknowledged that short of mounting a protest, there is little they can do.

Espinoza's bail was reduced to $10,000 following the hearing, which he posted. He has been in custody -- evidenced by his attire throughout the hearing in jail-issue, day-glo orange sweatshirt and pants -- since his arrest Feb. 5. He was unable to meet the previous bail of $1.5 million.

Prosecutors began calling witnesses Thursday to convince Donaldson that Espinoza -- angered by a traffic jam on Fourth Street caused by a group of bicyclists -- intentionally swerved into Robertson's path Nov. 17, running him down. The judge's decision, issued just before noon Tuesday, effectively invalidates that legal theory.

The remaining charges against Espinoza, 43, carry a maximum sentence of a year in jail. That's a far cry from the 25-years-to-life the trucker, who has two prior felony convictions, could have faced due to California's three strikes law. He was convicted in 1979 of voluntary manslaughter and in 1993 of assault with a deadly weapon.

Eric Murphy, describing himself as Robertson's best friend, said it was incomprehensible that the judge didn't feel there was enough evidence to try Espinoza. He said that many of Robertson's friends felt there was enough evidence to convict the trucker of murder, if not manslaughter.

Another of Robertson's friends, Greg Strom, said the judge's ruling opens the door for more violence against bikers.  "If people are going to be allowed to drive their cars like this, I firmly suggest that you prepare to be armed, because the justice system is clearly not able to deal with this," said Strom.

Espinoza's attorney acknowledged that the District Attorney's Office can still add a charge of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. Chuck Smith, speaking from his Redwood City office, after being pressed, also said prosecutors could appeal Donaldson's decision.
"The law is pretty clear on this," Smith said. "They could appeal, but they'll lose."

Fred Gardner, spokesman for the District Attorney's Office, said there are no plans to appeal the ruling. The judge has spoken, he said, and the case will be tried as a misdemeanor. A trial date has not yet been set.

Robertson's death has pitted members of San Francisco's bicycle messengers against truckers, who they claim routinely endanger them. The bicyclists also have lashed out against police, with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition issuing a report claiming police turn a blind eye to cyclists' rights. Police officials have categorically denied those claims.

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.


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