Driver guilty of vehicular manslaughter in Sebastopol cyclist's death

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A Sonoma County man was found guilty Thursday by a jury of causing the 2016 crash that killed a Sebastopol woman taking part in a charity bike ride, concluding a lengthy case that proved to be a flashpoint for local bicyclists worried about their safety on rural area roads.

The 12-person jury deliberated for about an hour before finding Courtney Rudin, 75, of Healdsburg guilty of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, a crime for which he could face up to a year in jail. He was found to have acted negligently on Sept. 10, 2016, when he passed a slow-moving grape truck on a narrow two-lane road despite seeing Amy Suyama, 55, and her boyfriend riding in the opposite direction. Both riders fell to the ground as he passed.

Suyama was taken by ambulance to a hospital but died as she arrived there. Rudin, who was described by his attorney as being in poor health after the hearing, was not present while the Sonoma County Superior Court clerk read the verdict.

The trial, which lasted almost two weeks, was the second for Rudin in connection with Suyama’s death. It ended four months after a deadlocked jury could not decide whether Rudin was responsible for the fatal crash, which happened on the northbound side of Eastside Road near Windsor. That side of the road has no fog lines or shoulder.

The new jury members considered a video interview between Rudin and an officer after the crash, in which Rudin said he saw the bicyclists but continued to make the pass because he believed there was enough room. He stopped after seeing in his side mirror that both cyclists were down, Rudin said in the video. A trip by jurors to the crash site, as well as witness testimony from Suyama’s boyfriend and the lead CHP investigator, also were considered.

The verdict lays to rest questions that followed Suyama’s death nearly three years ago and provided accountability for Rudin’s part in the crash, said Jon Suyama of Virginia, one of Suyama’s five siblings.

He learned of the verdict after receiving a phone call from a local bicycle activist who attended Thursday’s hearing, he said.

“It’s a relief, but of course, nothing is ever going to bring her back,” Jon Suyama, 63, said. “Going forward, you can only hope that there’s a silver lining. Cases like this may help educate people a little bit.”

In a voicemail left for a reporter, Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch commended the jury for the guilty verdict. She said she hopes it serves as a reminder for people to be careful while on Sonoma County roadways, she added.

“Clearly, this is a case where an individual made choices that resulted in someone’s death due to his negligence,” Ravitch said. “We really hope this verdict serves as a notice to people who are out on the roads to be mindful of others, whether they are pedestrians, bicyclists or other drivers.”

Steve Spiegelman, Rudin’s attorney, said he was disappointed with the outcome of the trial. He argued Ravitch’s office should have never filed charges against Rudin, noting officers could not pinpoint the cause of the crash after a nine-month investigation. The lead investigator testified that he found no evidence that the truck or bikes ever made contact.

Spiegelman said he was also disappointed that prosecutors told the jury how much Rudin paid for one of the expert witnesses, an accident reconstructionist, to testify in the case, a move that Spiegelman said may have inferred the expert was lying.

“I respect the jury, but how far do you have to go with your tactics?” Spiegelman said of the District Attorney’s Office.

Andy Dean, a close friend who rode alongside Suyama during the Tour de Fuzz charity ride the day of the crash, was among those who attended Thursday’s hearing at the Sonoma County Superior Court. He said the penalty for the misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge, likely a few months in jail and a fine, would not be enough to compensate for Suyama’s death.

“Rudin could have avoided the whole trial if he would have just manned up to what he did in the first place,” Dean said by phone later that afternoon. “He took no regard for our safety whatsoever.”

Eris Weaver, the executive director for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition who also attended Thursday’s hearing, let out an audible “Yes!” in the courtroom after the verdict was announced. She thanked Ravitch’s office for pursuing the case and others like it in Sonoma County.

“It feels like our safety is being recognized,” Weaver said. “I’m hoping the message that comes out of this is an ‘aha’ for drivers.”

Rudin was ordered to appear in court for sentencing on Sept. 18.

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