How San Francisco created America’s first bicycle felon
A true story by Chris Bucchere.
March 29th, 2012, 8:20am, Castro Street
When he regained consciousness, Chris found himself bloodied and bruised, being loaded into an ambulance. He had no idea that his life had permanently changed. Because, a few days later, an elderly man he had hit with his bicycle would die of injuries sustained in the accident. News would go viral internationally, including articles in the New York Times and Forbes magazine. The District Attorney of San Francisco would see Chris’s case as an opportunity to send a message to the city’s cyclists.
But this isn’t a story about cycling. It’s about criminal justice. It’s about prosecutors manipulating the press in order to deprive defendants of due process, where facts are misconstrued and inaccurate details leaked. It’s about social media whipping public opinion to a frenzy, giving DAs fodder for political gain. It’s about what really happens behind the headlines: who wins, who loses, who plays fair—and who doesn’t.
Bikelash is a twelve-week podcast series chronicling Chris’s role in a fatal bicycle-pedestrian accident. These 102,000 words are based on court transcripts, emails exchanged with his attorney, and Chris’s in-the-moment journaling from immediately after the accident until he pleaded guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter eighteen months later.
Witnesses say Chris Bucchere ran a red light. He knows they’re wrong but has no way to prove it. While he’s in the hospital, the media narrative ramps up, blaming him for everything. With a head injury and high on painkillers, he sends the dumbest email of his life.
With accusations and condemnations flying, Chris returns to Market and Castro to reconstruct the accident. As TV crews stake out his San Francisco home, he hides with his family in an Oakland hotel room. San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón goes on KCBS and says he’s gunning for a felony as the SFPD continue their ongoing investigation of the accident.
Chris finds out that the police are seeking a warrant for his arrest on the morning news, even though charges haven’t been filed. He and his family scatter and leave the Bay Area in different directions. He tries but fails to find a way to address the media.
Too scared to be near their home, the Buccheres hop from hotel to hotel and then to a friend’s house in the East Bay. Chris gets booked in county jail. The DA and the SFPD blame one another for the leaks. The DA issues a press release, ratcheting up his anti-cycling rhetoric. With nothing going his way, Chris starts coming apart at the seams.
During discovery, Chris finds a critical piece of information the police and the DAs missed in their video evidence that exonerates him from any legal wrongdoing. The attorneys prepare for the preliminary hearing, with the end finally in sight.
Chris gains an important understanding of the DA’s motives and the nature of his case: by reading about it in a Chronicle gossip column. His attorneys find more critical errors in the DA’s evidence as court delays push the outcome into a new year.
Chris’s attorney shows, on the court record, that the DA’s own video evidence contradicts all of the eyewitness’ testimonies, including the the man who claims that Chris ran “several red lights and stops signs” before the crash. The judge also catches that witness lying under oath. The cop lies too, but doesn’t get caught. Then, the unthinkable happens.
Reeling from the court debacle, Chris finally sees something in the news about him that isn’t superficial and wrong. He gets arraigned again, and local media outlets hang him out to dry again. The DA digs in even deeper. Since he has no case, weaponizing the media is his only remaining strategy.
Chris’s attorney and the DA reach a bizarre agreement where some of the charges get dropped and his sentence gets reduced—but at a cost. Chris becomes a felon for six months, just long enough for the DA to score political points by using him as the fall guy for every unlawful cycling behavior in San Francisco.
Months after sentencing, more clues emerge about the motives of the DA and his most important witness. Was it all rigged from the start?