San Franciso: The Examiner
Local News
Hearing begins in bicyclist's death

By Dan Evans
Of The Examiner Staff

As bicyclists and truckers watched each other icily from across the courtroom, prosecutors began calling witnesses Thursday to convince a San Francisco judge that a truck driver suspected of striking and killing a bicycle messenger in November should be brought to trial.

Trucker Rueben Espinoza, who showed up in court dressed in a jail-issue day-glo orange sweatshirt and pants, was driving down Fourth Street Nov. 17 when he allegedly threw a wooden block at bicycle messenger Chris Robertson, 30, swerved into Robertson's path, and ran him down.

The real adversaries in the courtroom Thursday were bicyclists and truckers. The right side of the court's gallery was given over to Robertson supporters, who openly expressed their belief that Espinoza murdered their friend. Entering the courtroom, the mostly bespectacled bikers doffed their helmets, revealing the hairstyle common to their ilk.

On the left side of the courtroom -- the side where Espinoza and his defense attorneys sat -- was a smaller, quieter group. Where Robertson's supporters chatted while waiting for the hearing to begin, the truckers -- identifiable by their Teamsters union jackets -- sat stoically.

Robertson's mother, Fran, who received greetings and hugs from the dozen-and-a-half members of the biking community present, said the hearing was hard to watch.

"It's extremely tough," she said. "It's reliving what happened four months ago all over again."

San Francisco police arrested Espinoza, 43, on Feb. 5. Prosecutors are asking San Francisco Superior Court Judge Herbert Donaldson to hold Espinoza over for trial on charges of involuntary manslaughter, assault with a deadly weapon and assault with force likely to produce great bodily injury.

Bail for Espinoza was originally set at $2 million, but his attorneys appeared in court Feb. 26 with nearly 40 letters of support for the trucker, asking that the amount be reduced. A separate judge, Cynthia Ming Mei-Lee, reduced the bail to $1.5 million, though Espinoza was still unable to raise the money.

The hearing is expected to last until this afternoon. But since Assistant District Attorney Murlene Randel only has to prove probable cause -- meaning it is more likely than not that Espinoza committed the crimes -- the outcome is all but certain.

Randel's first witness was Adele Gaskin, who testified that she watched in horror as Espinoza's truck ran Robertson down. Gaskin said the truck, heading south, swerved into the northbound lanes of Fourth Street, striking the bicyclist on the passenger side of the vehicle.

But under cross-examination from Espinoza's attorney, Charles Smith, she acknowledged she told prosecutors during an interview Dec. 7 that Robertson was struck on the driver's side. She said it was a mistake brought on by her distress from witnessing the death.

"As I said, again, sir," said a somewhat agitated Gaskin, "I clearly saw this happen."

Robertson's death has pitted members of San Francisco's bicycle messengers against truckers. The bicyclists have also lashed out against police, claiming cops turn a blind eye to cyclists' rights. Police officials have categorically denied those claims.

One man, wearing a black nylon union jacket, complained everyone has been focusing on the bicyclists' issues. Everyone is willfully ignoring the fact that it was an accident, he said. But another man, dressed in a light blue polo shirt, almost immediately stopped the conversation, saying Espinoza's lawyers -- Smith and San Mateo attorney Michael Devoy -- told them not to talk to reporters. Neither would give his name.

Giving the case additional weight, a conviction would give Espinoza his third strike, which under California law would send him to jail for life. He was convicted in 1979 of voluntary manslaughter and in 1993 of assault with a deadly weapon.

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