Jury deadlocks in trial of Healdsburg driver charged with killing cyclist in 2016 crash
A deeply divided Sonoma County jury announced Monday they were unable to reach a verdict in the trial of a Healdsburg driver charged with vehicular manslaughter in the 2016 crash that killed cyclist Amy Suyama.
Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Barbara Phelan declared a mistrial after polling the jury and determining they were “hopelessly deadlocked.”
The panel of eight women and four men said they could not decide whether Courtney Rudin, 75, was responsible for causing the crash on Eastside Road west of Healdsburg during an organized bicycle ride. The jury’s forewoman told Phelan the split was 10-to-2 toward a guilty verdict.
Rudin was nearing home on Sept. 10, 2016, when he drove into an oncoming lane of the two-lane road to pass a slow-moving truck.
He told investigators he saw two cyclists heading his direction - who would later be identified as Suyama, 55, of Sebastopol and her boyfriend, Andy Dean of Santa Rosa - when he entered their lane, according to the testimony.
Rudin was not present in court Monday. His attorney Steve Spiegelman said he believed the split vote showed there simply wasn’t enough evidence that Rudin had acted negligently. He said the trial had been difficult for Rudin, who he described as a veteran and retired AT&T employee. Since the crash, Rudin has had two heart attacks and is battling cancer, Spiegelman said.
The two holdout jurors “made the right call,” Spiegelman said.
Dean, who testified during the trial, stood in the hallway after the mistrial was announced and appeared to tear up as he listened to the jurors speak with the lawyers.
“I’m disappointed,” Dean said. “And kind of numb.”
Suyama lived in Sonoma County more than 30 years, working as a produce broker and living on her property in rural Sebastopol. She grew up in Maine, the fifth of six children of Virginia Suyama and her late father, Eji Suyama, a World War II veteran who worked as a surgeon until the year before he died at 89.
On the day of the crash, Suyama and Dean were 45 miles into the Tour de Fuzz, a charity ride to benefit law enforcement chaplains, when they saw Rudin’s Chevrolet pickup pull into their lane to pass what appeared to be a truck hauling grapes.
Sonoma County Deputy District Attorney David Kim argued Rudin caused the crash by making an unsafe pass, regardless of whether his vehicle sideswiped or hit the cyclists.
Kim also told jurors he felt the CHP’s initial investigation was not thorough and overlooked key evidence, such as a marking on Suyama’s jersey that appeared to match the pattern on Rudin’s truck tires.
But Spiegelman argued that Rudin was not at fault because there wasn’t enough evidence showing his truck hit the cyclists nor was there evidence showing he came too close and caused them to react out of fear.
The CHP’s lead investigator said he couldn’t come to a conclusion and said it was possible Rudin’s truck hit the cyclists, but it was also possible that he didn’t collide with them.
Prosecutors could re-try the case. Sonoma County Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said they will make that determination after speaking with Suyama’s family and reviewing feedback from the jury.
Eris Weaver, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, said she is grateful the District Attorney’s Office treated the death of a cyclist seriously and sought a just verdict for what she viewed as a clear-cut case.
“Anyone who has ridden a bicycle on that road can tell you there’s not enough room to pass,” Weaver said.
Lawyers for both sides questioned jurors outside the courtroom about the deliberations, which took 11 hours over the course of four days.
The two jurors who voted against a guilty verdict said there wasn’t enough evidence to determine precisely what happened on the roadway the day of the crash.
The others said it seemed clear Rudin chose to enter the oncoming lane.
The trial began March 27 and took place over the course of ten half-days with the court only convening on afternoons. The jurors were handed the case April 16.
Jenny Soderman, one of the jurors who voted against a guilty verdict, said during an interview after the mistrial was declared that she felt she needed more precise evidence about what happened on the road between the cyclists and the truck.
The prosecution presented photos of an area along Eastside Road where the crash took place but couldn’t point to an exact spot.
“If you don’t know where the accident happened, it might not mean he’s innocent, but it doesn’t make him guilty,” said Soderman, a manicurist from Rohnert Park.
The jury forewoman, Danel Gonzalez of Santa Rosa, said the deliberations were stressful and at times tense.
“Most of us were confident - we think it was negligence. A person is dead,” Gonzalez said.
“If I’m able to see a bicyclist coming, we’re sharing the road, I would give myself time and make a safe pass once they passed.”