Hearing begins in bicyclist's death

Hearing begins in bicyclist's death
	By Dan Evans
	Of The Examiner Staff
Sat, 14-Apr-2001 | San Francisco Examiner | Local News

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

"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

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.
E-mail Dan Evans at devans@sfexaminer.com

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