|San Francisco Call
* May 7, 2001
Murder is no accident
Thirty-one-year-old Joseph S. Woods surprised three intruders when he returned to his flat in the Mission last November. They fled in a burst of gunfire, leaving Woods dying, his body draped over his bicycle.
A week later, Woods’ fellow bike messengers followed their usual custom, riding together toward Mission Rock to conduct a bayside wake. On the way, 30-year-old Christopher Robertson became involved in an altercation with the driver of an 18-wheeler. The enraged Rueben Espinosa, 42, turned his big rig on Robertson and killed him.
On April 17 Judge Herbert Donaldson dismissed Espinosa’s felony manslaughter charge on the grounds “that there was no proof of gross negligence” and reduced his two charges of felony assault to misdemeanors.
We were messengers. Together in San Francisco. I never knew him.
People said he was unique, indescribably so. We never spoke.
We stood there together. In my mind for only a few moments.
His friends called him especially intuitive, gifted, “a wonderful person.”
All I felt was the numbing pain which accompanies certain kinds of dread.
Somewhere beyond our anonymous detachment we came together lay to rest our friend.
The legend, the lover, a guy we couldn’t help but love. Joe Cool.
We had gathered there that evening to pay our last respects to a great guy.
Another that I never really got to know. A guy who just kinda glowed peacefully.
Never too uptight to nod and say “What’s up?” or “How’re ya
The kind of guy you’d be proud to have date your sister.
Then at the moment we all finally came to say goodbye, Chris was brutally snatched away as well. Killed by an admittedly angry and obviously distraught truck driver as Chris was participating in his friend and colleague’s funeral procession. A somber, contemplative ride from South Park to Mission Rock. Where people share their favorite stories about the deceased, celebrate his or her life, and console each other in their loss. This culminates with one last salutation before we set free the ghost of our most recently, dearly departed comrade.
This twenty-plus-year-old tradition was desecrated by a reckless, rampaging driver, resulting in the death of a mourner during a final rites ceremony. This largely uncontested fact alone seems to scream out for some form of punitive action. Especially since the driver admitted to “playing chicken” with the lives of numerous cyclists.
But it has been subsequently determined that a bicyclist can be erased by a simple, one-inch rotation of the steering wheel, later to be dismissed as an “accident.”
Even if the driver admits to being frustrated in his efforts to pass the group, whose members have every legal right to an entire lane, just like any other vehicle. Even though the driver, racing the cyclists down the hill, admittedly crossed the double yellow line, then swerved back, crushing Chris under his right front wheel. Later claiming he couldn’t possibly see anyone way over there. Even after both sides agreed to all of these facts, the driver got off, again.
If my worst enemy was walking down the sidewalk, and I blatantly ran him over, I’d have a better chance, statistically, of getting off than if I shot a home invader in self-defense. Officers arriving on the scene of a bicycle vs. car collision are trained to look for any excuse to not write up an accident report. Let’s face it, no cyclist has the force of the law behind him, even if he is obeying those very same laws to the letter.
Chris was killed because automotive recklessness has never been properly punished in California. Forget that, in this case, the driver had already killed someone before this “accident.” Just consider this: when a car is involved, you can never prove premeditation; after all, it’s the driver’s word against that of the victim, who is generally beyond testifying. Even if he admits to throwing debris at the deceased prior to running him over, manslaughter is the worst he’ll ever face.
Try pleading manslaughter after waving around a loaded weapon. But kill someone with your car, van, SUV, pickup, or semi and you’ll face only a fraction of the sentence handed down if you were to commit the same level of carnage with an Uzi.
I tried to warn my friends, “Don’t be surprised if this guy gets off, and it won’t be the judge’s fault.” That’s the way the law is meant to be interpreted; it’s written that way. Basically it asserts that unless you leave a note stating your intent, you can kill someone with your car without really being found guilty of those intentions. We are not allowed any conjecture as to the driver’s state of mind. If it’s done with a car, case closed. Sorry Mom, sorry Dad, the D.A. said they can’t get a murder conviction for your son’s murderer. He did it with a vehicle. That makes it “vehicular” —i.e., untouchable, legally taboo.
But I can’t forget. We stood there. Together. For a brief moment. Drinking martinis. In honor of Joe, a true class act. We hung around nervously, bound together tenuously by some common acquaintances and a slow sucking sense of real loss. It felt like the end of an era.
I was feeling so angry and sad over Joe’s needless, violent death that I couldn’t stand the thought of riding down to Mission Rock with the rest of the procession. Refusing the repeated efforts of my peers to cajole me into joining them as they departed for Mission rock, I rode alone down Stanford instead and around the back of Packed Bowl Park. Traveling along the water’s edge, the twilight fallen on the city sounded so calm. How could the rest of the world be so unaware of the great loss we had just endured?
I arrived at Mission Rock, as I expected, well before the large group, which had left just before me. The one I didn’t want to have anything to do with. I remember thinking how I hate riding in large groups because inevitably some macho, asshole driver gets all bent and starts coming too close and revving his engine, cutting people off, etc. Then the first riders began to trickle in with ashen faces, confused words, angry, tearful. As I prepared to deal with my emotions regarding Joe’s murder, I had to try to comprehend this new, macabre butchery. How will I explain this mayhem to my wife?
“Well gee honey, he was riding his bike in a funeral procession and well, I guess that driver just didn’t see those thirty bikes all riding together in a pack, or maybe he did, but he was in a hurry and they were in his way and you know … it was an accident.”
But murder is no accident.
The San Francisco Independent Media Center has posted an article by Ilk entitled “Data show SF police bias against cyclists.” The following is an excerpt:
Numerous injuries sustained by bicyclists in San Francisco prompted the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition to open up a hotline for cyclists to report incidents. Over 14 months of reports revealed a disturbing pattern of police neglect and indifference to injured cyclists….
At best, this pattern of police' neglect of duty represents a serious problem with police training and failure to follow procedure. At worst, it evidences the bias against cyclists as legitimate road users from the public servants whose job is "To Protect and Serve." If you experience a problem with SFPD police follow-up after a bike collision or injury, you should report the officers involved to the Office of Citizen Complaints at (415) 597-7711. You should also report the incident to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition at (415) 431-BIKE, extension 7.
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