|San Francisco Examiner * April
Biker's death spurs protest
By Dan Evans
of the Examiner Staff
Critical Mass, the monthly bicycle protest-cum-social event that
brought the city to its knees in the summer of 1997, is back, but this
time it's more than just a joy ride.
Some participants in the anarchic nonorganization of bike enthusiasts
and automobile-culture protesters, which has been the bane of
motorists and pedestrians for almost 10 years, say they want to shut
down the city to protest the death of Chris Robertson, 30, a cyclist
killed in what they say was a road rage incident with an impatient
Trucker Reuben Espinoza was charged with vehicular manslaughter, but
Superior Court Judge Herbert Donaldson dismissed that charge on
Tuesday. Donaldson also reduced two felony assault charges to
misdemeanors. If convicted, Espinoza, who was convicted in 1979 of
voluntary manslaughter and in 1993 for assault with a deadly weapon,
could have faced California's three-strikes law.
Robertson's friends are planning a Critical Mass gathering Friday at
Justin Herman Plaza, the traditional meeting place for the ride. Plans
after the 5:30 p.m. rendezvous are -- as usual -- undecided.
Participants won't decide on their route until they get going.
Robertson was an ardent supporter of Critical Mass, which was
conceived in 1992 as a way to draw attention to alternative forms of
transportation and the rights of bicyclists in a crowded city. It has
since spread from San Francisco to 160 cities worldwide. Participants
say it has focused public policy on ways to make San Francisco a more
It has also had its run-ins with the law, which reached an apex in
July 1997 when as many as 5,000 cyclists flooded the streets and
jammed traffic for hours. Police jailed 105 cyclists for blocking
traffic and committing moving violations. Though cyclists have been
cited during the monthly rides since, mostly for running red lights,
the group has toned down its demonstrations if not its rhetoric.
Robertson's death has pitted members of San Francisco's bicycle
messengers against truckers and other motorists, who bikers claim
routinely endanger two-wheeled commuters. The bicyclists have also
criticized the police. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition issued a
report claiming officers turn a blind eye to cyclists' rights, claims
which police officials have categorically denied.
Fliers for the event are going up on telephone poles and cyclists are
mapping potential routes through the city over an e-mail group list.
Eric Murphy, Robertson's best friend, said he expects a large and
indignant Critical Mass. He said Donaldson's ruling was a failure of
justice and proof that cyclists are treated as second-class citizens.
"As much as slaves were considered to be three-fifths of a person, a
bicyclist's life is worth three-fifths of everyone else's," Murphy
But another friend said it was more likely Donaldson wanted to avoid
sentencing Espinoza, if the trucker was convicted, to life in prison.
Bill Sender, a frequent Critical Mass participant, acknowledged he is
against the three-strikes law but said the judge's decision was
outrageous. "I don't think his ruling was based on any
anti-cycling feeling. It was a different agenda," he said. "But I do
not believe justice was administered the way it's supposed to be."
Robertson worked at Rainbow Grocery in the Mission for five months
before his death. He participated in a charity AIDS ride every year
and was an active member of the bike coalition. On Nov. 17, the day he
died, he was in a procession of cyclists returning from a wake for a
bike messenger who had been shot at his home the week before.
"This shows the need for a citywide network of separate bike lanes and
paths, because the justice system does not defend anyone but a car
driver on a shared street," said Dave Snyder, executive director of
the Coalition. "There's never any prosecution for running people over.
It's like spouse-beating used to be."
The remaining charges against Espinoza, 43, carry a maximum sentence
of a year in jail. But that is a far cry from the 25 years to life the
trucker faced under the state's three-strikes law.
Donaldson, who retired from active duty in 1999, was the first openly
gay jurist on the San Francisco bench. He also, notably, turned down
an offer by then-Gov. Jerry Brown to be elevated to superior court
duty, telling Brown he preferred municipal court. San Francisco
courts, as have all courts statewide, recently consolidated the
superior and municipal divisions.
Following the ruling, Espinoza's bail was reduced to $10,000, which he
posted. He had been in custody since Feb. 5, unable to meet the
previous bail of $1.5 million.
Prosecutors said Espinoza, angered by a traffic jam on Fourth Street
caused by the group of bikers, intentionally swerved into Robertson's
path and ran him down. But Donaldson said there wasn't enough evidence
to prove the trucker's actions were "grossly negligent," a necessary
component of the manslaughter charge.
Bail for Espinoza was originally set at $2 million, but his attorneys
appeared in court Feb. 26 with nearly 40 letters of support asking for
the amount to be reduced. Judge Cynthia Ming Mei-Lee reduced the bail
to $1.5 million, although Espinoza was unable to raise the money until
the charges were dismissed.
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