Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Motorist Who Killed Bicyclist Diane Vega Gets $1,000 Fine, Suspended 6-Month License

Tampa bicyclist Jose Menendez offered these observations about the driver who was charged with running a red light at Sprice and Himes October 1 and killing bicyclist Diane Vega while Diane was biking home from her job.

Here's Jose's report:

I went to the Edgecombe Courthouse this morning for the 2nd hearing for Josefina Rodriguez, the driver who was charged with running the red light at Spruce & Himes and killing Diane Vega last Oct. 1st.

I was delayed getting there, and it was 10:50 am when I reached courtroom 300. The defense attorney had already presented his two witnesses and was making his closing argument. He was trying as hard as he could to convince Judge Ober that his client was innocent and that one of the other drivers, Lucille Franklin, the elderly woman who was driving a Lincoln Town Car, had actually run a red light on Spruce St. and caused the crashes. He claimed that the driver, David Zinn, who testified at the first hearing that he witnessed the defendant run the red light on Himes Ave. and got a photo of her before she got out of her SUV after the crash wasn't a credible witness.

(For more info about the witnesses at the first hearing than I gave in my original email, here's a link to Alexandra Zayas' very good St. Pete Times article about that hearing. Thanks to Mike Weimar for sending me the link to the article the morning after the hearing before I even started looking for it. By the way, I didn't see any media people at today's hearing.)

Near the end of his argument, the defense attorney said that he could understand the anger and grief felt by Diane's family and he wasn't trying to diminish it, but their anger was directed at the wrong driver. They should be angry with Ms. Franklin, he claimed, not his client.

Finally, he said he hoped the judge would find his client not guilty. Almost instantly, Judge Ober said, "Well, I'm going to find your client guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Is there anything else you want to say?" The defense attorney replied, "I don't think there's anything left to say." Then he sat down and hung his head, looking dejected.

Before the judge imposed the sentence, Diane Vega's two daughters, Selena and Genevieve, her sister, JoAnn, and her mother, Amelia, took turns addressing the judge. (In his closing argument, the defense attorney complained that the judge had overruled his "soft objection" and listened to Diane's mother at the first hearing. The judge interrupted him to say that it didn't influence her.)

Selena said that her mother's death had left a huge whole in her life, that her mother wouldn't be there when she gets married, has her first baby, etc. She also said very sadly that every time she sees people riding bikes she looks at them hoping she'll see her mother out for a ride again and that she'll return home one day. But, she said, she knew that would never happen. The judge told her that even though her mother was gone, she would always be with her.

Genevieve also spoke about her mother's loss. She also said with great emotion that she knew forgiveness is very important and that she had already forgiven the defendant and didn't want revenge for her mother's death. The judge told her that accidents and tragedies happen every day. Some people, she said, say it's a matter of luck; others say it's fate. But all of us are only human, and unfortunately humans make mistakes. And sometimes their mistakes lead to tragedies.

Besides speaking about her sister's death, JoAnn spoke angrily about the legal delays and the fact that the TPD's investigating officer failed to show up in court for both hearings. The judge said that TPD officers never show up in court, and JoAnn shot back that they do when someone's trying to get out of a speeding ticket. Judge Ober replied, "But they never show up in court for traffic cases involving a death or serious bodily injury. I'll issue a court summons, telling them to appear, and they still don't show up." (While the judge spoke about no-show TPD officers, two HCSO deputies standing on either side of the courtroom door exchanged glances.)

When Diane's mother Amelia spoke, she was angry that the defendant wouldn't get a harsher sentence and that the defense attorney had tried to blame Ms. Franklin for causing the crash. The judge replied that no sentence she could impose for the charge under current law would make the family feel any better about what happened and that the attorney was just trying to do his best for his client.

Judge Ober went on to say that the family may want to become activists, adding that a number of victim's families had done that and lobbied the state legislature, local governments, etc. She said that, as a judge, she was very limited in how much activism she could do. She added that perhaps they could start by demanding to know why TPD officers don't show up to testify in court for traffic cases involving a death or serious bodily injury.

Finally, Judge Ober imposed her sentence. She fined the driver $1,000 plus court costs, ordered her to attend driving school, and suspended her driver's license for 6 months.

There was one final dramatic scene. Diane's daughters had left after addressing the judge. After the sentencing, I walked out of the courtroom with Diane's mother, sister, and one of their friends. While we were walking down the hallway, the daughter of the defendant suddenly hurried out of the courtroom and started speaking to Amelia and JoAnn in a voice choked with tears, first in Spanish then in English. Not wanting to intrude on such an emotional private moment, I walked on by myself and sat down in a chair about 30 feet down the hallway. I could only hear bits of what the defendant's daughter told them. Basically, I think she said that her family was very sorry about what happened to Diane, but they were convinced that her mother hadn't run the red light or caused the crashes.

Well, sorry for another lengthy email. I doubt any of you will think the sentence was strong enough. I'm going to tell some media contacts what Judge Ober said about TPD officers not showing up in court to testify in traffic cases involving death or serious bodily injury. Maybe they can verify the judge's comments, then demand an explanation from TPD regarding their no-show officers.


No comments: