San Jose Mercury News * April 18, 2001

Truck driver avoids felony trial
Evidence in Bicyclist's Death Fails to Support Charge, Judge Rules

By Alexis Chiu
Mercury News

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, authorities said.

"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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