Thursday, January 04, 2007

My Day in Court: Preliminary Hearing

I showed up at court and saw the officer who was first on the scene pulling up at the same time, and he walked in ahead of me. I entered the building and announced myself at the front desk area, and felt the people in the waiting area tense up. I realized that one of them was probably the defendant and the rest were his family. The officer came out from a back room right away and sequestered me in a different area. We talked for a little bit, and he told me what would happen. "Also," he said, "he has hired his own attorney. The attorney may grill you. It's nothing personal, just that he's paid to try to make you look bad."

The courtroom was set up by dyslexics. The judge enters from the right side, so the witness chair is set up on the left. This means that the prosecution sits on that side (the officer informed me they always sit on the same side as the witness chair...learn something every day), not the traditional right side, like you see in all of those television crime dramas.

"The prosecution would like to call FishrCutB8/Rob." It is very weird hearing your name called in conjunction with a court case. My daughter takes drama classes (like she NEEDS them) and the one thing they ALWAYS stress is the three Bs: Be Seen, Be Heard, Be Understood. It was my mantra while I was up on the stand, and it brought great calm.

The officer asked me to describe the events of that day, and I told how I was riding along (should have inserted the cliche: "minding my own business...") when I felt a force hit me from behind and lift me up off my bicycle. As I was in the air, I heard a voice in my head say, "Get Safe", so as I hit the pavement on my left side, I sprang off with my right foot and landed in the grass on the side of the road. He asked about my experience on a bike (4 years) number of miles ridden per year (500-800+) was I wearing a helmet (YES!), and the like. He also presented evidence of my injuries (nice photos...eek!) and the truck that ran me over ("Is this the truck that struck you?"). Then he rested and it was the attorney's turn.

He asked a lot of questions, but the central ones were:
Q: Did I notice the driver driving eratically?
A: No.
Q: What direction was I facing when I landed?
A: Toward the direction of traffic.
Q: Did the truck squeal tires when leaving?
A: No.
Q: How far were you from the truck when you landed and saw it stop?
A: About 30 feet.
Q: Shouldn't you have been in the other side of the road?
A: No. There are two reasons for this. First, by traveling with traffic, if you get hit, it efectively dampens the impact because you are traveling in the same direction. A 15 mph bike hit by a 40 mph truck has an effective impact of 25 mph. Conversely, in a head on collision, a 15 mph bike hit by a 40 mph truck has an effective impact of 55 mph. Second, Pennsylvania state law dictates I travel with traffic, as far to the right as possible, which is where I was when I was struck.
Q: Are there grates on the road there?
A: Yes, off to the side of the road.
Q: How did you proceed around them?
A: I didn't. I went past them. By ducking in and out of obstacles on the side of the road, you make yourself erratic, and it's this lack of predictability that gets cyclists hurt when they cut back out in front of cars.
Q: Is it safe to say there was a lot of glare from the setting sun that day.
A: Yes

Then the officer on the scene gave his testimony. He described coming up to me, lying on the ground, bleeding and in pain. I was already on the back board and neck brace at that point. He got my description of the truck. Also, he recovered a cap from the hub of the truck, which would later be used to identify the year, make and model. Then, he was cross-examined. The critical questions were:
Q: Did the defendant turn himself in?
A: Yes.
Q: Was he cooperative?
A: Yes.
Q: What was his demeanor?
A: He was very upset, and even cried at one point. (Interesting. Not to pound my own chest, but I got run over by a truck and didn't cry.)
Q: Is it likely you would never have caught him if he hadn't turned himself in?
A: I can't say, because we had a stakeout on the road and he travels it every day.
Q: Did you read him Miranda?
A: No.
There were also questions about the timeline, and the fact that I was hit, the press release went out, and the defendant turned himself in after reading about it. His mom followed with her testimony, and said her son had not been drinking or doing drugs prior to driving that day.

Finally they gave closing arguments. The defense attorney went first, stating that there was a lot of glare on the road that caused the accident. Also, the defendant thought he hit something on the side of the road. There was no report of him driving erratically. The defendant was not drinking, which is, according to him, the primary reason to file charges of this sort. And, because of my apparent state of mind, I may not have accurately seen the defendant's truck come to a complete stop, then take off at a high rate of speed. He finished with the defendant having the accident, going home, reading about it, checking and seeing damage to his truck, putting two and two together and turning himself in. He asked that, because of all this, the charges against his client be dropped.

The officer gave the closing argument for the state, saying that his failure to stop and render aid was the central issue. Also, there is a clear difference between hitting a squirrel or a grate and hitting a human being, and that a reasonable person would know the difference. He concluded with the defendant turning himself in for fear of geting nailed.

I was sitting in the back and realized SOMETHING HAD BEEN MISSED! In a court, you don't speak unless spoken to, and I wanted to scream, but I was struck mute (not easy for an Irishman, I assure you, especially when we have something to say). I wanted to scream "YOU FORGOT TO ADDRESS MY STATE OF MIND!" Ironically, screaming that in a courtroom would have addressed that very issue...

Because this was a preliminary hearing, it was up to the judge to weigh all of the evidence and testimony and decide if they should move to trial. He started off saying that there was a serious injury that resulted from the actions of the defendant. Furthermore, the defendant's failure to stop and render aid, especially given the obvious difference between striking a person and striking a grate were, in his mind, critical. Last, he stated that my "state of mind" was obviously sound enough to look at a truck, identify it from 30 feet away, remember it all, then give a thorough description of the vehicle to the police when they did show up. (THANK YOU VERY MUCH!).

The Crappy
On my way over to the courthouse, I passed a cyclist who was struck by a car. I'm not sure what happened or how bad it was, but there was an ambulance on the scene.

The Cool
The Assistant District Attorney, who is responsible for prosecuting the case for the court is a cyclist who rides up to 2K per year.

The Funny
I told my daughter I was going to court, and she asked, "Can I come?"
"If you'd like." (She ended up stayinghome with a friend--they had no school that day.)
"Is there going to be a big audience, like in Judge Judy?"
"Probably not, honey."


Redlefty said...

Wow. What a day. Was the family's tenseness more a "That's the guy who was almost killed" or a "That's the guy who's pressing charges"?

Glad to hear you took the time to work through a lot of this before the hearing. Good job, brother!

Tim (Condorman) said...

Gee-za-lou. My stomach always tenses up when I hear any stories about someone going to court (and I'm a lawyer!). Then again, my concern is in the criminal side of the court b/c of the judges broad descrition.

I don't know anything about Pennsylvania law, but I'm surprised to hear that the Police Office was questioning you on the stand. Even in a preliminary / evidentiary hearing, I would have thought the prosecutor takes that.

I'm also surprised that the defendant's attorney didn't focus more on your state of mind trying about identifying his truck and HOW he drove away. But my guess is that this hearing was nothing more then a procedural matter b/c there is no way the judge was going to drop the charge when the guy confessed.

Does the guy have a record? Because if so, he could be looking at some jailtime.

As far as the defense attorney going after you in trial, I'm not really sure what he could do. He may try to claim that YOU caused the accident (hence the "where you on the right side of the road" and the "grate" questions). But that's a risky move b/c no jury wants to see a man run over by a truck and then run over by a lawyer just for seeking justice.

Anyway, good luck with this. Major victory getting a prosecutor with a personal attachment to your case. I'm looking forward to hearing how this comes out.

FishrCutB8 said...

He didn't really question me as much as open things up by asking "Can you tell us what happened?" Still, you're right, it is a little odd now that you mention it. I suspect you're right on when you say the lawyer knew he wasn't getting off, and the prosecutor probably thought the same thing.

I'm in the fortunate position of not pressing charges. The state does that in PA, and I am a witness for the state.

runningshorts said...

Have they set a trail date yet?

FishrCutB8 said...

No....and it could be as long as 6 months before they do.