Wednesday, January 17, 2018 · by Tamara Aparton
San Francisco—A motorist charged in the 2016 death of a woman crossing Seventh and Market streets in her wheelchair has been acquitted, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi announced today.
Jurors Tuesday afternoon found Antioch resident James Harris, 69, not guilty of a single misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter. If convicted, he faced up to a year in jail, said his attorney, Deputy Public Defender Dana Drusinsky.
Harris was driving for the city’s South of Market Mental Health Services on Feb. 5 at about 10 a.m. when he struck 38-year-old Berkeley resident Thu Thi Phan in the crosswalk.
Harris was making a left turn from Seventh Street onto Market Street—something that was permitted for paratransit and other specified vehicles—when Phan entered into the street as the flashing hand turned to a solid red. The light was green for Harris.
During the trial, experts testified that Phan was traveling at a “jogging speed” between 5 and 8 miles per hour, while Harris was traveling 14 miles per hour. Harris applied the brakes before impact, but it was too late. He struck Phan with the driver’s side of his vehicle.
Drusinsky argued that the accident was unavoidable given that humans require an average of 1.5 seconds to perceive and react to unforeseeable hazards. Phan entered the crosswalk so late that Harris did not have enough time to stop his vehicle. Once she entered the crosswalk, he saw her and braked quickly.
Phan was alert and oriented following the accident and was taken to San Francisco General Hospital, where she rated her pain level a 2 out of 10. Hospital staff gave her case the lowest urgency status. For the first three hours under medical observation, defense medical expert Dr. Mike Laufer testified that the 52-pound Phan was given too much fluid for her size, which likely contributed to the brain bleed that caused her death. Phan suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease.
Prosecutors argued that Harris was not exempt from using the turning lane for reserved vehicles but did not offer evidence. They also argued Harris should have foreseen the possible danger of hitting Phan.
“Quite simply, they wanted to hold Mr. Harris to an unreasonable standard,” Drusinsky said. “In order to prevent this tragedy, he would have had to predict the future. He didn’t have a crystal ball. He had 1.8 seconds.”
Character witnesses, including a union president and a reverend, testified to Harris’ reputation for honesty and trustworthiness.
Adachi called the trial “a sad case with the right outcome.”
“This case is a terrible tragedy, but not every tragedy is a crime,” he said. “Thanks to Mr. Harris’ public defender and a conscientious jury, his long legal nightmare is over.”