Mercury News * April 18, 2001
Truck driver avoids felony trial
Evidence in Bicyclist's Death
Fails to Support Charge, Judge Rules
By Alexis Chiu
A San Francisco judge tossed out
felony manslaughter charges Tuesday against a truck driver accused
of mowing down a bicyclist, dealing a sharp blow to a prosecution
that could have sent the driver to prison for life.
Reuben Espinoza was freed Tuesday
night on $10,000 bond. He was arrested after the city's bicycle
community, galvanized by the November death of 30-year-old Chris
Robertson, lobbied the district attorney's office to lodge criminal
charges against the driver.
Three months after Robertson's
death, Espinoza, 42, was charged with three felonies, including
vehicular manslaughter, and jailed on $2 million bail.
But retired San Francisco Superior
Court Judge Herbert Donaldson, who presided over a 2 1/2-day
preliminary hearing, on Tuesday reduced that bail and ruled there
was insufficient evidence to support a trial on the felony charges.
Instead, Espinoza faces two
misdemeanor assault charges, which carry a total maximum penalty of
two years in jail. Under the state's "three strikes, you're out''
law, he would have gone to prison for life if convicted of a felony.
He has served time for burglary and assault, and was convicted in
1979 of voluntary manslaughter stemming from a bar fight,
"There's no question the case was
overcharged,'' said defense attorney David Simerly, who initially
represented Espinoza before turning the case over to Charles Smith,
who could not be reached for comment. "It was just flat wrong.''
"It was very frustrating to see it
take off as a political case when the facts weren't there,'' he
said. "I'm grateful we have courageous judges like Herbert
Donaldson, who ignore the politics and look at the facts.''
The San Francisco District
Attorney's office defended its decision to pursue felony charges.
"This office would not have charged
it as a felony if we didn't think the evidence supported that
charge,'' said spokesman Fred Gardner.
On Nov. 17, Espinoza was driving a
tractor-trailer when he encountered a slow-moving bicycle funeral
procession near China Basin. He exchanged angry words with several
cyclists, and allegedly tossed a wooden wheel block at Robertson.
Soon after, Robertson was struck.
Tests showed Robertson's blood-alcohol level was nearly twice the
legal limit when he died.
A judge's approval at preliminary
hearing is not required for misdemeanor charges, and Gardner said
the office is considering adding a misdemeanor charge of vehicular
manslaughter when it puts Espinoza on trial.
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