Attorneys debate role of driver in 2016 crash that killed Sebastopol cyclist Amy Suyama
The quality of a CHP investigation into the 2016 death of Sebastopol cyclist Amy Suyama has become a focal point in a two-week trial of the driver accused of causing the crash that killed her.
CHP investigators overlooked a black scuff mark on Suyama’s jersey that appeared to match the tire pattern on driver Courtney Rudin’s pickup, Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney David Kim argued during closing arguments Monday. Kim said the marks are key evidence of the collision that occurred when Rudin drove his pickup into an oncoming lane to pass a slow-going truck on a narrow road with two cyclists - Suyama and her boyfriend Andy Dean of Santa Rosa - heading toward him.
But an attorney defending Rudin, 75, of Healdsburg, told jurors the origin of the scuff mark was not conclusive, and he noted it was not included as evidence in the CHP’s original report, the result of an 8-month investigation that reached no definitive conclusion about what caused the crash.
Steven Spiegelman told the jurors he believed the cyclists overreacted at the sight of Rudin’s pickup and crashed into each other.
“Why are we talking about the tire? Two years after this event, there was no evidence against Mr. Rudin,” Spiegelman argued.
Suyama, 55, was riding with Dean in the Tour de Fuzz charity ride Sept. 10, 2016 when Rudin entered their lane on Eastside Road.
They crashed and Suyama died immediately after being rushed to the hospital.
The crash became a flash point for the tension between cyclists and drivers sharing the narrow roads that traverse Sonoma County’s bucolic countryside. During the trial, Spiegelman tried to suggest that the District Attorney’s Office chose to prosecute Rudin after being pressured by cycling advocates.
The tire mark was discussed at length during the trial by numerous witnesses, including local CHP officers and members of the highway patrol’s accident investigation team based out of Sacramento. Prosecutors, however, argued that Rudin caused the fatal crash even if his truck did not strike the cyclists.
Rudin was charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, which carries a maximum punishment of one year in jail. The jurors must decide if Rudin made an unsafe pass that was a significant factor in the crash. They do not have to conclude that Rudin’s truck came in direct contact with the bikers. Judge Barbara Phelan instructed the jurors that bicyclists have the same rights as drivers on the road, and she read rules from the vehicle code prohibiting drivers from interfering with the safe operation of other vehicles.
Kim told jurors that Rudin was responsible for the crash because of his negligent decision to make a pass on a narrow, rural road even though he saw the cyclists coming his way. Kim showed photographs of the roadway, which had no shoulder on the cyclists’ side.
“It’s not good enough to make a pass when you think you can squeeze by,” Kim said.
Monday, the jury heard closing statements from Kim and Spiegelman. They will return Tuesday to hear Kim’s rebuttal and begin deliberations.
During the trial, jurors heard Rudin tell a CHP investigator in a videotaped interview taken the day of the crash that he didn’t think he hit the cyclists and was already back in his lane when he noticed in his rearview mirror that they were down on the road.
“There was plenty of room for me,” Rudin said of the road.
The scuff marks on Suyama’s jersey were discovered by district attorney investigator Rich Celli. Previously, the CHP had concluded that Rudin could have struck the cyclists, but there wasn’t enough evidence to prove it, according to court testimony. CHP officers - including the lead investigator in the crash, Officer Danny Alconcel - admitted on the stand that the scuff mark changed their opinions on what caused the crash.
“Do you believe Mr. Rudin’s tire came in contact with Ms. Suyama?” Kim said.
“I do now, yes,” Alconcel said.