Biker's death spurs protest

Biker's death spurs protest
"Critical Mass is back"
"Rally set for Friday"
	By Dan Evans
	Of The Examiner Staff
SF Examiner | 23-Apr-2001 | Page 1

Critical Mass, the monthly bicycle protest-cum-social event that
brought the city to its knees in the summer of 1997, is back,
but this time it's more than just a joy ride.

Some participants in the anarchic nonorganization of bike
enthusiasts and automobile-culture protesters, which has been
the bane of motorists and pedestrians for almost 10 years, say
they want to shut down the city to protest the death of Chris
Robertson, 30, a cyclist killed in what they say was a road rage
incident with an impatient trucker.

Trucker Reuben Espinoza was charged with vehicular manslaughter,
but Superior Court Judge Herbert Donaldson dismissed that charge
on Tuesday.  Donaldson also reduced two felony assault charges
to misdemeanors.  If convicted, Espinoza, who was convicted in
1979 of voluntary manslaughter and in 1993 for assault with a
deadly weapon, could have faced California's three-strikes law.

Robertson's friends are planning a Critical Mass gathering
Friday at Justin Herman Plaza, the traditional meeting place
for the ride.  Plans after the 5:30 p.m.  rendezvous are -- as
usual -- undecided.  Participants won't decide on their route
until they get going.

Robertson was an ardent supporter of Critical Mass, which was
conceived in 1992 as a way to draw attention to alternative
forms of transportation and the rights of bicyclists in a
crowded city.  It has since spread from San Francisco to 160
cities worldwide.  Participants say it has focused public policy
on ways to make San Francisco a more bike-friendly place.

It has also had its run-ins with the law, which reached an apex
in July 1997 when as many as 5,000 cyclists flooded the streets
and jammed traffic for hours.  Police jailed 105 cyclists for
blocking traffic and committing moving violations.  Though
cyclists have been cited during the monthly rides since, mostly
for running red lights, the group has toned down its
demonstrations if not its rhetoric.

Robertson's death has pitted members of San Francisco's bicycle
messengers against truckers and other motorists, who bikers
claim routinely endanger two-wheeled commuters.  The bicyclists
have also criticized the police.  The San Francisco Bicycle
Coalition issued a report claiming officers turn a blind eye to
cyclists' rights, claims which police officials have
categorically denied.

Fliers for the event are going up on telephone poles and
cyclists are mapping potential routes through the city over an
e-mail group list.

Eric Murphy, Robertson's best friend, said he expects a large
and indignant Critical Mass.  He said Donaldson's ruling was a
failure of justice and proof that cyclists are treated as
second-class citizens.

"As much as slaves were considered to be three-fifths of a
person, a bicyclist's life is worth three-fifths of everyone
else's," Murphy said.

But another friend said it was more likely Donaldson wanted to
avoid sentencing Espinoza, if the trucker was convicted, to life
in prison.  Bill Sender, a frequent Critical Mass participant,
acknowledged he is against the three-strikes law but said the
judge's decision was outrageous.

"I don't think his ruling was based on any anti-cycling feeling.
It was a different agenda," he said.  "But I do not believe
justice was administered the way it's supposed to be."

Robertson worked at Rainbow Grocery in the Mission for five
months before his death.  He participated in a charity AIDS ride
every year and was an active member of the bike coalition.  On
Nov. 17, the day he died, he was in a procession of cyclists
returning from a wake for a bike messenger who had been shot at
his home the week before.

"This shows the need for a citywide network of separate bike
lanes and paths, because the justice system does not defend
anyone but a car driver on a shared street," said Dave Snyder,
executive director of the coalition.  "There's never any
prosecution for running people over.  It's like spouse-beating
used to be."

The remaining charges against Espinoza, 43, carry a maximum
sentence of a year in jail.  But that is a far cry from the 25
years to life the trucker faced under the state's three-strikes

Donaldson, who retired from active duty in 1999, was the first
openly gay jurist on the San Francisco bench.  He also, notably,
turned down an offer by then-Gov. Jerry Brown to be elevated to
superior court duty, telling Brown he preferred municipal court.
San Francisco courts, as have all courts statewide, recently
consolidated the superior and municipal divisions.

Following the ruling, Espinoza's bail was reduced to $10,000,
which he posted.  He had been in custody since Feb. 5, unable to
meet the previous bail of $1.5 million.

Prosecutors said Espinoza, angered by a traffic jam on Fourth
Street caused by the group of bikers, intentionally swerved into
Robertson's path and ran him down.  But Donaldson said there
wasn't enough evidence to prove the trucker's actions were
"grossly negligent," a necessary component of the manslaughter

Bail for Espinoza was originally set at $2 million, but his
attorneys appeared in court Feb. 26 with nearly 40 letters of
support asking for the amount to be reduced.  Judge Cynthia Ming
Mei-Lee reduced the bail to $1.5 million, although Espinoza was
unable to raise the money until the charges were dismissed.

E-mail Dan Evans at

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