Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Today's Court Hearing For Motorist Who Killed Bicyclist Diane Vega Oct. 1

Bicyclist Jose Menendez attended today's court hearing for a motorist who drove through a red light at Spruce and Himes in Tampa and killed bicyclist Diane Vega on Oct. 1, 2010.

This is Jose's report:

I went to the Edgecombe Courthouse this morning, hoping to see the hearing for the driver charged with running the red light at Spruce & Himes, and killing Diane Vega last Oct. 1st. I ended up witnessing a very sad scene in a family's tragedy.

From past experience both as a juror and a potential witness, I knew the judges' dockets are so crowded that hearings rarely start on time. So I took a chance and arrived at the courthouse about 10:30. By the time, I got through security and made it to courtroom 300 where the hearing was supposed to be held, it was about 10:45. In another strange coincidence, just as I walking toward the courtroom door, a bailiff opened it from the inside and told the people waiting in the hall, including Diane Vega's mother, sister, and several witnesses, that they could enter for the start of the hearing. So I hadn't missed any of it. I walked in and sat down behind Alexandra Zayas, the St. Pete Times reporter who told me about the hearing. The only other news media person I saw in the courtroom was a Times photographer.

Unlike trials you may see on TV, there was no prosecutor. First, the judge, Joelle Ann Ober, would question each witness; then the defense attorney would cross-examine them. Some of the witnesses weren't too helpful. For example, the driver of the first car that was hit, a Lincoln Town Car, said she didn't see the car that hit her or know what direction it was going. A few times during testimony, the judge said she was getting confused. It didn't help that two SUVs were involved in the crash, a Nissan Murano that allegedly ran the red light going north on Himes and a GMC Yukon that was hit while sitting at a red light, facing west on Spruce, and sometimes witnesses would just refer to "the SUV." I think testimony about red lights on both Himes and Spruce at the same time may have confused her too. I don't recall any witness making it clear that eastbound traffic on Spruce got both a green light and a green left-turn signal while the westbound Spruce traffic and all the traffic on Himes had to wait at red lights. (The TPD officer who was supposed to testify about the crash investigation couldn't make it to court for the hearing.)

Diane Vega's mother, sister, and son were sitting behind me, and several times during testimony, her mother started sobbing quietly. As you can imagine, she was especially upset when a woman who was driving a car that was waiting on Spruce behind the Yukon testified about seeing Diane get hit, jumping out of her car, and looking for her body, first under the Nissan SUV because that's where the bike was wedged, then finally finding her unresponsive with fixed eyes. When the witness started to describe holding Diane's hand and talking to her to try to get any response, with Diane's mother crying in the background, the defense attorney interrupted the witness and said that to spare the feelings of the family and friends in the courtroom, the defense would stipulate that someone was killed in the crash.

Finally, one of the witnesses, the driver of a vehicle that was northbound in the inside lane on Himes, testified that right after he stopped when the traffic light turned red, he witnessed the Nissan SUV pass him in the outside lane and run the red light. Then he pointed to the defendant and identified her as the driver. He even showed the judge and defense attorney a photo on his cell phone of the defendant before she got out of her SUV after the crash.

Unfortunately, since the TPD officer couldn't be there, as well as two witnesses that the defense wanted to call, the judge said she'd have to issue a continuance. What followed was the most dramatic and emotional part of the hearing.

Diane's mother stood up, trying to choke back her sobs, and told the judge that she couldn't let the defendant get away with killing her daughter. As two female bailiffs started to softly tell her to sit down, Judge Ober gently told her that she had also lost a relative in a car crash and could understand how she felt. She added that she'd listen to what Diane's mother had to say either today or at the next hearing. The judge and the defense attorney then checked their available dates and came up with June 7th or 14th. Then the judge asked Diane's family which date they would prefer. They chose the 14th.

Then the judge repeated that she'd listen to Diane's mother today or at the next hearing. As Diane's mother walked up to the small podium where the witnesses stood to testify, the defense attorney quietly objected. He said victim's families had the right to speak before a defendant is sentenced, but his client hadn't even been found guilty yet. The judge waved him off and said listening to Diane's mother wouldn't prejudice her against his client. Then, with her voice broken by sobs, Diane's mother started to tell Judge Ober what a wonderful person Diane was, that she wasn't doing anything wrong when the defendant ran the red light and killed her, and that the judge couldn't let the defendant get away with it.

The judge listened closely, then repeated softly that she knew how it felt to lose a family member in a car accident. Then she said Diane's family needed to understand that the defendant was only charged with a traffic violation -- a civil offense, not a criminal one -- and even if she found the defendant guilty, the toughest sentence she could impose under the law would be a fine, court costs, and a suspended license.

Diane's mother said angrily that it wasn't right that someone could run a red light and kill a person and get off so lightly. The judge said she was sorry, but that's the law, and she has to follow it in imposing sentences, adding if people wanted to change the law, they'd have to take it up with the state legislature.

Before anyone gets angry at Judge Ober, I have to say she was very kind, patient, and sympathetic toward Diane's mother and family. And the judge wasn't the person who decided what charges to file against the defendant.

After the hearing, I asked the Times reporter if she knew what the exact charges were, and she replied, "Running a red light with death."

"And that's only a civil offense?" I asked in surprise.

She nodded her head and said, "The judge would be able to suspend her license for only a year." I shook my head in amazement.

After that, I spoke a bit with Diane's family. Her sister asked me if I'd heard about tomorrow's Ride of Silence to remember Diane and the other cyclists who've been killed. I smiled sadly, nodded my head, and said, "I organized it."

Well, sorry for the long email, folks, but I thought you might want to know what happened in a case where a fellow cyclist was killed. It was hard seeing and hearing her family's grief. I'd say we need to start lobbying the legislature hard to toughen the law for cases like this, but with its current composition, I doubt it would do any good.

Take care and ride safely,


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Why not vehicular manslaughter?