San Francisco Examiner * April 23, 2001

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.

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 bike-friendly place.

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 said.

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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