Why Is It So Hard to Charge Motorists with Murder?
Last February, 21-year-old Ronnie Ramon Huerta Jr. crashed his Ford 500 sedan into a pack of cyclists during the Palm Springs century. Here’s how the death of one rider, Mark Kristofferson, led to an exceptionally rare murder charge.
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Jennifer Lloyd was riding next to a friend when the Ford 500 sedan raced past. The two were pedaling through an area of California’s Riverside County known as Indio Hills, on an undulating stretch of Dillon Road, a little more than 20 miles into the Tour de Palm Springs, an annual 100-mile century ride that attracts thousands of cyclists. It was about 9:25 a.m. on Saturday, February 10.
Lloyd, who estimates the Ford sedan was going about 100 miles per hour down a two-lane road without a paved shoulder, turned to her friend and offered a blunt assessment: “That guy is going to kill someone.”
About a mile ahead of Lloyd, another one of her friends, Terri Buryanov, 34, was pedaling alone, closing the gap on a group of roughly 20 riders. Though she had only started cycling five months prior, the Las Vegas–area resident was already hooked. The Tour de Palm Springs was her first century.
Just as Buryanov was about to latch onto the group, she heard the speeding car behind her and instinctively squeezed her brakes and steered onto the shoulder. Up ahead, she saw the driver of a small pickup carefully passing the pack of cyclists—going slow and positioning the truck halfway into the opposing lane to give the riders enough room. The Ford was headed right for it. “He flew right past me,” Buryanov told me later. “He didn’t hit his brakes or anything. The driver decided to swerve left to avoid hitting the pickup. If he had swerved right, he would have plowed right into me.”
Buryanov watched the Ford hit a berm on the shoulder, then careen in front of the pickup. A massive cloud of dirt obscured Buryanov's vision for a few seconds, but she could hear what happened next as the sedan sideswiped the cyclists. “It was this unbelievable crunching noise,” she says. “It was a horrible sound. Two months later, I’m still hearing that sound over and over again.”
When the dust cleared, Buryanov saw that the Ford had slammed into the berm on the right side of the road and rolled over. Two cyclists were tending to a woman who had crashed into the side of the road. “Her face was totally covered in blood—I really couldn’t even see her face,” says Buryanov. “I could tell she was struggling to breathe.” Then she looked to her left and saw a man on the shoulder. Only seconds had elapsed from the moment of impact and already five or six cyclists were trying to resuscitate him.
As the riders waited for emergency personnel, a young man stood beside the Ford. “He was freaked out,” Buryanov says. “He had both hands up on his head and was crying and screaming. He was asking for his mom. You could just see pure devastation and fear on his face, like he already realized he had just ruined his whole life.”
“It was this unbelievable crunching noise,” Buryanov says. “It was a horrible sound. Two months later, I’m still hearing that sound over and over again.”
A few cyclists formed a loose perimeter around the driver as he screamed and walked around his car. “People were yelling at him, ‘Get down, you mother effer!’” Buryanov says. “Nobody went near him, but everyone held their positions to make sure he couldn’t run away.”
After paramedics arrived on the scene, they airlifted the woman, Alyson Lee Akers, a 50-year-old aerospace engineer from Huntington Beach, California, to a regional trauma center, where doctors treated her for a head laceration and other major injuries. She would survive, but the man wasn’t so fortunate. Medical personnel pronounced Mark Kristofferson, a 49-year-old father of two from Lake Stevens, Washington, dead at that scene.
Early that afternoon, the California Highway Patrol arrested the driver of the Ford—21-year-old Ronnie Ramon Huerta Jr. Later that day, Huerta would be charged with vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, according to court documents.
In the days after the crash, the prospects of Huerta’s defense would go from bad to ruinous. Within 48 hours of his release (he posted his $75,000 bond the same day as his arrest), news organizations published reports that itemized a lengthy history of speeding and other vehicular infractions. According to stories by the Associated Press and the Desert Sun, Huerta had been pulled over for speeding at least four times in the previous two years. He had also been convicted of other recent moving violations—talking on a mobile phone while driving, running a stop sign, and making an unsafe lane change. Court records indicate that Huerta had been convicted of driving over 70 miles per hour on residential streets at least three times in 2016 and 2017, and he was once pulled over doing 89 miles per hour on Interstate 10. His license had been suspended two months before the February crash after he failed to appear in court to face a negligent driving charge.
Then, on April 11, the Office of the District Attorney of Riverside County filed three new charges against Huerta for the Palm Springs crash: driving on a suspended license, alleged to be driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and another for murder. Huerta was taken back into custody, and his bail was reset at $1 million.
On average, motorists kill two to three cyclists every day in the United States. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a majority of these cases involve negligent drivers. But as long as the driver wasn’t on drugs or alcohol during the crash, they are rarely charged with homicide.
More often, they’ll come away with a misdemeanor charge. In California, for instance, the law states that a motorist commits misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter when he or she negligently causes the death of another person while violating a traffic law (like speeding, running a red light, or reckless driving) or “in commission of a lawful act that might produce death, in an unlawful manner.” For the crime to be elevated to gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated—a felony—the motorist must be proven to have been under the influence of drugs or alcohol and acted with a high level of negligence and recklessness that go beyond normal carelessness. In other words, they must have demonstrated a blatant disregard for human life.
In California, for gross vehicular manslaughter to be elevated to murder, the person must be accused of an “unlawful killing with malice aforethought”—meaning he or she committed an intentional act with conscious disregard for the risk it posed to others. That explains Huerta’s murder charge, says Megan Hottman, who runs a Golden, Colorado–based law firm dedicated to representing cyclists. “In the Palm Springs case, the murder charge was filed because the driver [is accused of being] under the influence of drugs and he was also believed to be going 100 miles per hour,” she says. “This goes far beyond ‘carelessness’ or ‘negligence.’”
The easiest way to kill someone and get away with a slap on the wrist is to make sure your weapon is a car.
Murder charges have occurred in other extreme cases. Charles Pickett Jr., who killed five cyclists in June 2016 near Kalamazoo, Michigan, while under the influence of methamphetamine and multiple prescription drugs, was convicted of second-degree murder in May. Cody Hall, who killed a 58-year-old cyclist in Pleasanton, California, after he posted on Twitter that he had driven 140 miles per hour and was going on a “death ride,” also got a murder charge. (At trial, Hall accepted a plea bargain and pleaded down to vehicular manslaughter with a great bodily injury enhancement.) In October 2015, Neil Stephany was convicted of murder and sentenced to 15 years to life for killing a 30-year-old cyclist in Orange County while driving with heroin and lorazepam in his system (and a DUI in his driving history), then leaving the scene after the fatal crash.
But these are the exceptions. With staggering repetition, motorists who kill cyclists with obvious negligence—manic speeders, drivers who are shown to be using their phones during or right before a crash, people who willfully leave someone to die on the side of the road—often slither through the judicial system with seemingly ridiculous charges and convictions.
Consider the case of Heather Cook, the Episcopal bishop in Baltimore who hit and killed frame builder Tom Palermo. According to court documents, Cook had a blood-alcohol content nearly three times the legal limit and a DUI history, and she left the scene of the crime twice, yet was able to plea down to a charge of vehicular manslaughter (a misdemeanor in Maryland that isn’t classified as a violent crime, provided the accused does not have prior convictions). Cook was later able to participate in a parole hearing after 18 months in prison. Then there’s the story of John Giumarra III—a member of a wealthy family that owns a large winemaking conglomerate in California—who killed a cyclist in Bakersfield last year. Even though records show that Giumarra had a blood-alcohol content of 0.18 and a previous DUI conviction and left the scene of the crime, he was convicted of a misdemeanor in early April (though he was found not guilty of the collision) and sentenced to 90 days in jail and 100 hours of community service.
“We have an unbelievable public-health crisis with so many cyclists getting hit and killed,” says attorney Peter Wilborn, whose practice is devoted to representing cyclists who have been injured in a crash. “Lots more people are riding, which is good, but infrastructure has been slow to catch up. And now we’ve got this surge of distracted driving.”
Hottman describes a legal system that struggles to recognize the crimes committed by motorists who kill cyclists. “District attorneys and judges face criminals every day who intentionally went out and did bad things,” she says. “They robbed or raped or murdered someone on purpose. These are crimes with intent, and so, understandably, the system focuses on those issues. Judges are under immense pressure to save resources and jail cells for the worst repeat offenders, and they often consider that drivers who killed or badly injured a cyclist didn’t leave their house that day intending to murder someone. Many elements of the system still look at these incidents as accidents.”
The easiest way to kill someone and get away with a slap on the wrist is to make sure your weapon is a car. But there has been some recent progress in how fatal crashes play out in the legal system as the problem gets greater attention from judges, state legislators, and police departments. “Ten years ago, it was really rare to get a felony conviction if a driver killed a cyclist,” Wilborn says, noting that his own brother was killed in 1998 while riding a bike after an underage driver ran a red light. “Now I’d say that in cases that involve death or catastrophic injury, close to 50 percent of the time we get felony charges. I see a system that isn’t perfect, but also one that’s caring more than it ever did before.”
Wilborn asserts that it's a logical fallacy to call the majority of these crashes murder. “I’ve been at this every day for many years and see the negligence and its impact,” he says. “I have seen the surge of distracted driving, and I know how a six-inch deviation in a car’s line can lead to a cyclist dying. We have a public-health crisis that needs to be solved, but it’s also true that very few motorists are using a car as an intentional weapon. So it’s only in extreme cases that the charge is murder.”
Ultimately, cyclists won’t be much safer on the roads until U.S. society starts treating them with more respect. “There’s this underlying belief that cyclists always somehow did something to contribute to the collision causing their death,” Hottman says. “Until all road users know and understand that cyclists have a lawful right to be there, bike lane or not, and until due caution is exercised, and until the system does actually punish drivers who harm or kill cyclists, I don’t believe we’ll see a broader shift toward justice.”
After medical personnel arrived on that scene at Dillon Road, Buryanov realized there was no further help she could give. So she got back on her bike. “I know now that cycling can fix almost anything,” Buryanov says. “I think in retrospect I was lucky that I still had 70-something miles to go.”
Buryanov says she pedaled in a fog until she got to the next aid station on the course. “I remember there were a couple hundred people there, and none of them knew yet what had happened,” she says. “I had been under control, but as soon as I clicked out and put my foot on the ground, I completely lost it. I had to go sit in the corner of the parking lot so I didn’t make a scene.” In the end, Buryanov finished her first century. And she’s kept riding, despite the trauma of the experience.
With staggering repetition, motorists who kill cyclists with obvious negligence often slither through the judicial system with seemingly ridiculous charges and convictions.
During our interview, Buryanov told me that one of her new cycling friends, the one who convinced her to ride the Tour de Palm Springs, got hit by a car a few weeks earlier. The friend, who was training for a half Ironman and got right-hooked by a woman who got out of her car and yelled at her, hasn’t been on the bike since. She’s not hurt, but she is scared, Buryanov says.
Buryanov can relate. A month after the Palm Springs century, she was driving in a neighborhood near her home—on a wide street with a bike lane and a 25 mile per hour speed limit. “It’s the kind of street where people routinely go 40 or 50, but it’s a residential area where people ride bikes and kids are out playing,” she says. Buryanov was going the speed limit and could feel an impatient driver behind her. That driver eventually put his foot on the gas and passed Buryanov on the right—speeding past her car with his car in the shoulder and bike lane. “Man, that hit me hard,” she admits. “I just started bawling while I was driving. I was completely freaked out that someone was driving like that, just oblivious that a car can be a weapon.”