Truck driver avoids felony trial
Evidence in bicyclist's death fails to support charge, judge rules

Truck driver avoids felony trial
Evidence in bicyclist's death fails to support charge, judge rules
	by Alexis Chiu, Mercury News
San Jose Mercury News | Wednesday, 18-Apr-2001

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

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

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

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.

Contact Alexis Chiu at or 415/477-3795.

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