It’s a common refrain among local cyclists: Want to kill someone and get away with it? Run them over while they’re on a bicycle.
Within Boston’s growing cycling community, a perceived lack of criminal prosecution of motorists involved in fatal bike crashes has been a regular source of outrage in recent years. That ire came to a fever pitch last week, when a grand jury investigation of a Wellesley bike crash with seemingly copious evidence — video footage, witnesses defending the deceased bicyclist, a truck driver who had fled the scene and had an extensive history of driving infractions — came back with no charges.
The grand jury’s decision, bicyclists contend, is evidence of a wider problem: Most people do not respect the rights of bike riders.
“The message that we got from this particular case,” said David Watson, executive director of the Massachusetts Bicycle Coalition, “is that, clearly, members of the general public still don’t care enough about bicyclists’ safety.”
Historically, prosecutors have been seen as reluctant to seek charges in crashes between bikes and cars. Civil cases have long been the realm of justice for families. But cyclists say they want better, and they had hoped to get it in the case against truck driver Dana E.A. McCoomb, accused of striking and killing cyclist Alexander Motsenigos, 41, on Weston Road in Wellesley.
Police and prosecutors were seeking to charge McCoomb with vehicular homicide, as well as unsafe overtaking of a bicyclist.
The accident was particularly grisly. Video footage, captured by a traffic camera, showed McCoomb’s truck attempting to overtake Motsenigos, striking him from the side, and driving off without stopping. A woman who was one of several witnesses, defended the cyclist at the scene, shouting: “It wasn’t his fault! He didn’t do anything wrong! He was just coming down the hill, and the truck hit him! The truck was going way too fast!”
An accident reconstruction confirmed police officers’ belief that charges against the driver were in order.
McCoomb’s lawyer, Scott Tucker, could not be reached Thursday. After no charges were returned against his client, he declined to comment on the grand jury’s decision, stating only that he was happy that McCoomb was not indicted on criminal charges.
Hearing that the driver would not be charged criminally shocked and angered members of the cycling community, many of whom were still reeling with sadness and anger at other recent bicycle fatalities, including the death of 23-year-old Boston University student Christopher Weigl, killed in December on Commonwealth Avenue in Allston. Suffolk prosecutors are awaiting a final report from the Boston police collision reconstruction team before they decide if charges will be filed in that case.
Josh Zisson, a lawyer specializing in bicycle-related cases, said many cyclists view juries in criminal cases as a litmus test of how they are embraced and protected by the communities in which they live. Stereotypes about careless or foolhardy bicyclists, he said, leak into the criminal process.
“It’s really an example of how people have it in their heads that bikers are reckless to ride in the street,” Zisson said.
Motsenigos’s family has filed a lawsuit against the truck driver, and Zisson said he hopes that they are able to get some justice from that civil case. But civil damages, he said, just are not the same.
“It’s definitely the sort of thing where people who ride bikes want to see jail time or to see some sort of criminal charges that stick,” Zisson said. “When people don’t see that, a lot of people get the sense that the government doesn’t really care.”
Of course, not all bike collisions can be expected to go to court, just as not all car crashes, or instances of cars striking pedestrians, result in criminal charges. But, they said, it appears that police and prosecutors have begun to take a more aggressive stance in bike-related cases.
The Suffolk district attorney’s office does not keep records on the number of bike-related cases it has prosecuted in recent years, spokesman Jake Wark said. But, he said, there are cases in progress: Prosecutors have indicted one driver, Michael Ahern, in the death of a cyclist in Dorchester last September. Another man, Vinodkumar Patel, is set to appear soon in Boston Municipal Court for striking, but not seriously injuring, a cyclist in July 2011, Wark said.
Bike advocates said they have seen a trend in recent years toward police departments taking bike crashes more seriously.Continued...