Bikelash PART IX: The Message

On the morning of March 29, 2012, while riding my bicycle, I hit and killed a man who was crossing the street.

This is not a story of who was at fault, though at first it seemed that way.

We all share a critical responsibility when we go out into the world: the duty to keep one another safe. I failed in that responsibility and, as a result, we will never get back the life of Sutchi Hui. Words cannot adequately express how sorry I am for his death and for the loss to his family. I carry that sorrow with me every day.

This story is about what happened after the accident—and it’s a story that happens all too often: High-profile cases get tried not in courtrooms, but on TV and the internet. Media fans the flames, the public quickly passes judgment, and elected officials bend the system to secure political wins—at the expense of due process and fair outcomes.

The narrative is based on court transcripts, newspaper and online articles, television broadcasts, and extensive notes and journal entries I made in the months after the accident. To protect the privacy of others, I changed some names. All else is true to my memory of what happened.

I am sharing this not for redemption or personal profit, but because this side of the story rarely gets told. To make sure our justice system treats all defendants fairly, we need to speak up when it doesn’t.

I’m Chris Bucchere.

And this is Bikelash.

PART IX: The Message

CHAPTER SEVENTY-FOUR

18 July 2013—476 days since the accident

After much reluctance and hesitation, many fits and starts, and after every imaginable human emotion had run its course, I unceremoniously pleaded guilty to felony vehicular manslaughter in exchange for a suspended sentence, three years of probation, and 1,000 hours of community service. The felony—somewhat inexplicably—would get converted to a misdemeanor in six months if I complied with the terms of my probation.

In other words, I would become a convicted felon—but only for six months. I was a reality show felon—quite literally—since the TV news is scripted just like a reality show, but with unwilling participants.

To my relief, the relentless DA finally agreed to drop the red light violation from the conviction. He held firm on speeding, as expected, even though no one could prove it.

Inconceivably, Gascón remained unwilling to budge on the failure-to-yield infraction, even though we and his underling prosecutors recognized that the yellow light gave me the right of way. Ted didn’t fight it—even though he knew it was important to me—knowing that we would soon lose this ostensibly sympathetic judge if we kept negotiating—and knowing that dropping the failure-to-yield charge had no material impact on the important part of this Faustian bargain: my sentence.

Omid promised us that no press would be there. That’s odd, I thought. We have a free press in this country; they can come and go as they please. Perhaps Omid’s promise was the exception that proves the rule. In other words, there would be no press that day because Omid didn’t tip them off this time.

Sure enough, no press attended my hearing, the hearing in which history was made. The only person in this country to get charged with a felony for the way in which he rode his bicycle just got convicted, but no one in the media lifted a finger to write or create a TV segment about it.

This entire hearing was way too easy, I thought as Ted and I exited the courtroom in silence. Still no media in the halls, none outside. I wanted to believe that I had caught a break.

CHAPTER SEVENTY-FIVE

22 July 2013—480 days since the accident

From: Ted Cassman

To: Chris Bucchere

Subject: Here it Comes

Andy Ross left me a voicemail this afternoon wishing to discuss the “plea deal.”

* * *

From: Chris Bucchere

To: Ted Cassman

Subject: Re: Here it Comes

Thanks for the heads up. Did Omid set an expiration date for his “no press” promise?

CHAPTER SEVENTY-SIX

23 July 2013—481 days since the accident

When the DA’s latest media push hit, it hit hard.

We had marveled at how I had been allowed to enter my guilty plea in private. We had walked in, taken care of business, and walked out without needing to navigate a gaggle of reporters with their cameras and their microphones and their inane questions. I had a feeling then that something seemed off about Omid’s promise of a media-free conviction. Perhaps thinking he could fool me with mere distraction, he had made good on his promise—only to let loose a full-strength media assault, five days later, with a press release about the sentencing.

I had known something wasn’t right. But there wasn’t a goddamn thing I—or anyone at this point—could do about it.

So out came the torrent of media attention. Amid much rejoicing, Gascón kept the promise he made a few days after the accident—of justice, of deliverance, of setting an example. And the most ridiculous part of it all was that it was all just for show. A felony conviction with an expiration date! Who’d ever heard of such a thing?

Over the past sixteen months, Gascón had used some ferocious rhetoric—even invoking fictional fighter pilots Maverick and Goose from the film Top Gun to describe my “need for speed.” He called my behavior “reckless” and “completely horrible.” He then slapped me with a charge rarely ever applied to motor vehicle operators in the same situation.

On this day, however, Gascón backed off on his rhetoric, toning down his cinematic prose. The accusations of running one, two, three, or more red lights and stop signs? Notably absent. The accusations of recklessness? Gone. The accusations of racing? Long gone. The movie metaphors? Also gone. In fact, Gascón seemingly reached out an olive branch with this mind-boggling statement: “This was not so much about Mr. Bucchere,” Gascón said. “This was about preventing future collisions and death.”

I read that line over and over, not able to comprehend what I had just read. I read it again. And again. I glared at the loathsome words on my computer screen, stood up, and started screaming like a madman. THIS WAS NOT SO MUCH ABOUT MR. BUCCHERE?

Gascón, are you out of your mind? You ate Mr. Bucchere for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You ruined my reputation, called me a liar, a reckless maniac with a need for speed. You slapped me with charges that could have landed me in jail for six years. You poisoned the media and tainted the hearts and minds of the public to ensure I could never get a fair trial. You caused me to lose friends, jobs, customers, security, money—you DESTROYED me. So please, pray tell, how was this “not so much about Mr. Bucchere”? Am I just your messenger?

Feeling better after that outburst, I sat back down. At once I realized what Gascón was really saying when he claimed that “The People of the State of California vs. Christopher A. Bucchere” was actually “not so much about Mr. Bucchere.”

Just days after the accident and my grossly misinterpreted email, Gascón had told KCBS’s Holly Quan that he was leaning toward felony charges. The police had only just begun their investigation then. They hadn’t announced that they had a video of the entire accident, let alone presented the case to the DA’s office, following the usual protocol. But Gascón already had a vision of the perfect opportunity to set an example. One that that would ostensibly deter other outlaw cyclists from their dastardly behavior—by creating the nation’s first bicycle felon.

Unwilling to let go of this chance, Gascón had refused to accept as relevant or meaningful anything about the case that supported my innocence, something that should have been presumed from the start. By his own admission, he had refused to acknowledge anything I ever did—anything at all about me—if it didn’t mesh perfectly with the evil cyclist archetype he had already created. I would have loved an opportunity to meet with him, to ask him if I really deserved to be a felon and go to jail for this. But he refused to meet with me, or even with Ted.

“Having a felony conviction was important to us,” Gascón had told NPR. “We would have gone to trial if they had not agreed to a felony conviction.”

For Gascón, it wasn’t ever about me—it had nothing to do with the facts of my case at all. For Gascón, it was about creating a felon to set an example, about carving another notch on his political belt, about redeeming his failure not to prosecute Randy Ang more harshly, which hadn’t played well in the court of popular opinion. Maybe it was even about winning future elections. But this case wasn’t about me, it wasn’t about justice, and it had no connection to the reality of what had happened.

I wondered, was this the sort of “justice” that Gascón would want for himself, if he were in my shoes?

CHAPTER SEVENTY-SEVEN

15 August 2013—504 days since the accident

At long last, my sentencing arrived. A few days prior, Omid had moved the sentencing up from Friday to Thursday—I suspected because Thursdays were a better “media day” than Fridays. We didn’t object, knowing that no matter what we did, we would be lined up like a row of sitting ducks for the press.

I arrived at the Hall of Justice uneventfully, located Ted, and, together, we parted a sea of journalists with their microphones and cameras. My skin had thickened to the point that the nagging entourage of the press no longer really bothered me. I walked swiftly into the courtroom with Ted, never looking at my feet. Randy Ang always looked at his feet and it made him look guilty. I took a seat on the right side of the gallery. I have no idea why, but I always sat on the right side. I positioned myself on the end of the row and turned ninety degrees to my left, so I could see the door with one eye and watch Ted flit about the courtroom with the other.

The inner door of the vestibule swung open and an unusually tall woman of Asian descent strode purposefully into the courtroom. I recognized her long, straight black hair, which she wore down, as when I had seen her last. I recognized her lengthy stride. Like a gazelle. I’d watched that lanky figure stride hundreds and hundreds of times, forward and backward across the pavement, crossing Castro Street as it runs east-west alongside Market Street, starting 13.9 seconds ahead of the WALK indicator.

I gazed in disbelief upon Wen-chih Yu, the most flagrant jaywalker. Yu had escaped death or serious injury twice the day of the accident—once by jumping out of the way of a northbound car with a green or yellow light, and a second time by my impulse to pull out of my dive to the left, sending me headlong into Mr. Hui.

I turned abruptly to face the bench. I didn’t want her to recognize me. Amazingly, she walked up to the row of seats directly behind mine and sat down, one seat over to my right, just inches away.

What the hell is Wen-chih doing here? Did she realize that it was her jaywalking that had played a huge role in Mr. Hui’s death? Had she not been three-quarters of the way across the intersection when the WALK signal came on, it’s likely I would have been able to swerve to the left, out of Mr. Hui’s way.

Meanwhile, out of nowhere, a small, elderly woman plunked herself down next to our lead jaywalker. She was bemoaning the disorganized, slipshod way that the city government goes about its business, and rattling off a list of commitments that would be cast into chaos if court ran late. She then started a conversation with Wen-chih. The elderly woman explained that she worked for an advocacy group.

In a cackle of words, she asked Wen-chih where she worked. Wen-chih answered in a barely audible whisper that she does some kind of philanthropy. Based on the shortness of her answers and the diminutive volume of her voice, I could tell that she didn’t have any interest in conversation.

“Why are you here?” the woman asked.

Wen-chih paused for a moment, then, somewhat reluctantly, said, “I witnessed the accident. I testified against the cyclist, and I wanted to see for myself how it turns out.”

The woman gasped loudly. She turned her volume up and launched into a barrage of rapid-fire questions.

“You were there? In the crosswalk? What happened? How close were you? Tell me everything!”

Her line of questioning was mercifully aborted by the bailiff calling court into session.

The judge took care of some procedural matters, then asked the Hui family members if they had anything to say.

Terry Hui Jr. spoke about how much he—and everyone—missed his dad, and about the relationship his young daughter had with her grandpa. How she often asked why he hadn’t been coming over any more. I felt a lump well up in my throat.

I thought about burying Papa Donny on the one year anniversary of the accident. I thought about my daughter and my dad and their relationship, about Terry Jr.’s loss, his daughter’s loss—the whole family’s loss. With the system nearly done having its way with me, I could sense some emotional space opening up, a small place where I could actually start to feel again.

Sticking to praising his late father, Terry Jr. steered clear of any references to my behavior—the behavior the DAs and the media had led him to believe was criminally responsible for his dad’s death. Terry Jr.’s speech was a class act.

Then he turned to me and gave this warning: “Please don’t squander the second chance you have to become a good and compassionate person, not to be the narcissistic person you were when you wrote the insensitive web posting about my father.”

I couldn’t blame Terry—I was sure his opinion of me had started off badly and only gotten worse. His mom had said that she and Sutchi had not only waited for the WALK symbol on March 29, but that she had walked out ahead of Sutchi while he waited an extra few seconds before crossing, something he always did for extra safety.

Furthermore, not only had Terry Jr. read all the horrible things about my character in the newspaper and on the internet, he had to hear those “facts” recited on the TV news, which said that after riding recklessly and killing his father, I blogged that my helmet mattered more to me than the man I killed.

Never mind that I hadn’t blogged; I had never written or even thought anything like it. None of that mattered. Reporters turned loopy allegory about helmet safety into fact and published it all over the world, so at this point it might as well be true.

Terry Jr. couldn’t have known that the DA was using the media as an echo chamber to justify his own politicized ambitions. He couldn’t have known that the witnesses had all given distorted accounts, and that nearly every word Nathan Pollak had spoken was some kind of lie, distortion, or half-truth. He couldn’t have known that the highly certified “expert” was paid to lie on the stand. That Inspector Cadigan misrepresented clear testimony so that it became misleading. That even the coroner had colored outside the lines, ruling the death a homicide, when it wasn’t her job to make that ruling.

Terry Jr.’s perception of me matched the prosecution’s perception of me, the media’s portrayal of me, and, therefore, the world’s understanding of me. But for Terry Jr., it was much, much worse. Not only was I a monster; I was the monster who had slaughtered his law-abiding father. My recklessness, my “need for speed,” my “selfish motivations,” my “pattern” of blowing red lights—those acts killed his father, he had been told. I’m sure nothing could—or ever would—change his perception of me. It explained why he had given the Get Well card I had written for Sutchi to the police, why he had told the DA to throw the book at me, and, perhaps, had even told Omid not to accept my apology letter to his mother, which inexplicably still remained in Ted’s possession.

I found it hard to accept Terry Jr.’s diagnosis—narcissism, insensitivity, lack of compassion, and just general evilness—because he wasn’t actually talking about me. He had been misled, deceived by a city government so manipulative they would create a monster just so they could slay it—giving themselves a political win.

But politicians would also need a way to explain why their demon of such grand proportions didn’t get any jail time. Recalling that Omid had said that the family would do whatever he wanted them to do, I wondered if the DAs had convinced Terry Jr. to emphasize “mercy” in his speech in order to mitigate the inevitable public outcry about the “weakness” of my sentence.

It’s pointless to create a monster and then just let him get away.

CHAPTER SEVENTY-EIGHT

16 August 2013—505 days since the accident

Amid yet another subsequent barrage of public shaming and fresh batch of death threats popping up on my phone, something truly wonderful showed up in my email inbox. A dear friend of Carroll’s, from Washington, DC, wrote her a note, which Carroll forwarded to me.

From: Pam Moran

To: Carroll Bucchere

Subject: Chris

[…]

Since we know Chris, we know that the anger and vitriol aimed at him has nothing to do with him, but more to do with the fears of others who haven’t been involved in a tragedy of this nature, simply because a series of circumstances haven’t landed them there. We judge harshly when we think something could have been avoided, but the truth is that if it could have been avoided, it would have been. We argue with reality daily, and get angry about what we think should not have happened, rather than responding with love, compassion and kindness to what actually did happen.

My husband [also a cyclist] was horrified to see the biking community turn their back on him, and it’s been a great lesson for me as to how easy it is for others to judge when they have no sense of the suffering Chris has been experiencing. The media takes advantage of the human tendency to believe anything they see in writing, especially if it’s been repeated more than once. This is the most excruciatingly frustrating thing about social media, and traditional media for that matter. We are losing the ability to think for ourselves, question “truths” that we instinctively know are wrong. “Spin” sucks.

Those who malign another’s character based on a single tragedy are responding to how they’d feel about themselves if it happened to them. So many of us would judge ourselves to be horrible people, and it’s easier to blame someone else than to face our own lack of self-compassion.

We love you guys, and we know that whatever you’ve learned, and whatever meaning you can take from this, will change your lives and create opportunities for a lot of wonderful things to take root and grow. Meanwhile, during the worst of it, know that there are plenty of people out here who “get it” and who will love up on you until your grief is manageable.

CHAPTER SEVENTY-NINE

6 September 2013—526 days since the accident

Fred Levine, the attorney hired by YNK Insurance to defend me against the forthcoming civil suit, sent me the cover letter of a $2,000,000 demand from the Hui family’s attorney, Rick Johnson.

The letter referred to twenty-two pages of “observations made by members of our jury pool” about me, which consisted of screen captures of internet comments calling for my public humiliation, torture, and/or execution.

I read it, and then sent the following email.

From: Chris Bucchere

To: Fred Levine

Cc: Ted Cassman

Subject: Re: Claim of Hui-Demand pgs.1-6

Hi Fred,

Thank you for sending the cover letter. May I pick up the 100 pages from your office some time today on CD or thumb drive?

Only one part caught my attention:

“At no time since he killed Terry has he shown any remorse or contrition for his acts or offered any sympathy or condolences to the Hui family for their horrific loss.”

Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that Terry Jr. egged Gascón on and asked him to “throw the book at me” and by doing so put me in a position where speaking publicly or privately would have been suicidal. Let’s also ignore the fact that now Betty and Terry Jr. are suing me for $2,000,000, which means that speaking publicly or privately would constitute financial suicide. Discounting both those reasons for my silence, consider that Terry Jr. and Betty either did not receive or have chosen to ignore:

1) the get well card I hand-delivered to the hospital along with an orchid;

2) the daily calls I made to Inspector Cadigan to inquire about the well being of Sutchi—every day from when he was injured until when he died;

3) the lengthy apology I wrote on April 7th, 2012 and sent to Ted; and

4) the apology letter I wrote and that Ted offered to Omid on several occasions, but which he refused to accept.

That obvious issue—the family’s lack of knowledge of my attempts to communicate with them—is the same issue that matched the suspicion that Carroll and I had and the same issue that made us call the meeting last week. The Hui family has ignored or forgotten all of my attempts to express concern, remorse, contrition, and sorrow and now they’re trying to use that against me. The family thinks I’m a cold-hearted killer because no one has communicated to them my attempts to show sympathy, to make amends and to say that I’m sorry.

On top of that, the cover letter’s tone shows that the family bought what the media presented about this case and what the DA told them. And that’s all they heard, facts be damned.

I would like to read the ~100 other pages before making any other comments.

Best regards,

Chris

CHAPTER EIGHTY

1 October 2013—551 days since the accident

Of all the lessons the judges, the prosecutors, the Hui family members who had spoken to the media, and the hundreds of thousands of enraged commenters hoped I would learn during this nightmarish ordeal, I retained exactly none of them. All the legal consequences were sorely lost amid the fiction created by the DA and promulgated by the mainstream and social media.

My contrition, my sadness, my regret had been there from day one—but they were snuffed out by Gascón’s false narrative, the media’s sensationalizing of it, and by a court case that forced me to defend myself and the security of my family. It’s hard to be open to self-improvement lessons when you’re getting death threats.

Now I don’t mean to say that I didn’t learn anything. I learned many things, in fact. Or rather, I unlearned many things that I once thought were true, things I once held dear.

I trusted that I rode on an actual cycling team, not merely a bloated email list.

I trusted in my basic right to privacy.

I trusted in the presumption of innocence.

I trusted in due process, in the sanctity of the justice system.

I trusted the media to responsibly report factual information, to check and double-check sources.

I trusted that the media served as a check-and-balance to government, not a platform that government could use in self-service to influence minds and control outcomes.

I trusted that we had a free press in this country, not one controlled and manipulated by prosecutors—or by anyone.

I trusted that the criminal justice system was based upon a deterministic set of rules and laws.

I trusted that this country’s jails were humane.

I trusted that prosecutors cared about the truth—about getting it right—about knowing that gross errors and irresponsible actions mean the wrong people go to jail.

I trusted that DAs valued correctness, professionalism, and integrity over their own personal prejudices and desires to further their political agendas.

I trusted that things like traffic signals and WALK/DON’T WALK indicators bore relevance to traffic investigations.

I trusted that people cared about facts, not about hearsay, unsubstantiated claims and sensationalized garbage.

I trusted that video evidence mattered more than erroneous, contradictory, and make-believe eyewitness accounts.

I trusted that oaths were sacred, and that people who took oaths and testified under oath were obligated to tell the truth or else be held accountable for their violations.

I trusted that cops told the truth, especially when under oath.

I trusted that expert witnesses were experts.

I trusted that judges were sworn to be fair and able to see through cases fabricated to serve political ambitions.

All of those beliefs that I once held dear now sound foolish, as if I was living in some sort of utopian delusion.

I now live in insurmountable fear of our criminal justice system—and I fear for all those ensnared in its net, especially people of color and those without the resources to defend themselves, or both.

I may never fully come to terms with my moral failings. I will always wish I could have kept Mr. Hui from harm. But I have become a better person because of this. I don’t watch anything on TV. I question everything I read, always on the lookout for other people experiencing what happened to me. I never prejudge any defendant in a Trial-by-Media because I know most of the cards are coming from a loaded deck.

I also know I’m just one example. The criminal justice system in this country has done far, far worse.

I thought we were better than this. We should be better than this.

We can be better than this.


>> Continue to PART X: Epilogue


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