This post is part update, part observation and part cautionary tale.
Almost three years ago in Toronto, on August 31st 2009, cyclist Darcy Sheppard died of injuries suffered in a dramatic encounter with a car driven by Michael Bryant. (Though he was simply riding his bike at the time of the accident, Sheppard had also been a bicycle courier.)
The incident generated widespread news coverage and stirred strong feelings in cycling communities, where car-verses-bike encounters are a constant concern.
At the time of the accident, Michael Bryant was a Harvard-trained lawyer with political prominence – “a rising star” in journalistic shorthand. He was also a former attorney general for Ontario. In spite of that elevated status (because of that status?) Bryant was quickly – very quickly – arrested and charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving causing death.
Looking back, it does appear that assumptions were made. Assumptions about road rage, assumptions about guilt.
By May of 2010, Richard Peck, a prosecutor imported from British Columbia for that case, concluded there was “no reasonable prospect of conviction” and the charges were dropped.
That still allows for assumptions. Some might assume a powerful person got a break, or that guilt existed which simply couldn’t be proven. After all, the case never went to court and Darcy Sheppard is not around to present his side of the story. CBC quoted Misty Bailey, the dead cyclist’s girlfriend as having this reaction:
“The message I’m getting is we deserve to die for riding a bike,” she said. “There’s no repercussions.”
But this case doesn’t look that simple. According to CBC:
The cyclist’s blood-alcohol concentration at the time of his death was measured at 0.183, more than twice the legal limit, court was told.
“Mr. Sheppard struggled with alcohol, drug use and psychiatric issues,” said Peck, who added that he was trying to outline the facts in the case and not trying to “demonize” Sheppard.
Peck detailed six previous altercations — including one that happened the same day as the incident with Bryant — involving Sheppard and motorists who called police after seeing Sheppard’s photo, which Peck said indicated “a pattern of escalating behaviour with motorists leading to the fateful incident.”
In one case, Sheppard smashed a car mirror, and in another he reached into a BMW trying to snatch keys, Peck told the court.
Quoted by CBC outside the courtroom, here’s how Peck summarized the situation:
“Our conclusion is that Mr. Bryant had been attacked by a man who unfortunately was in a rage. In such circumstances, he was legally justified in attempting to get away. The case could not be proved.”
Michael Bryant has since written a book about the experience.
In a recent interview with CBC he reiterates his sense of being attacked by a belligerent Sheppard. Bryant says he really doesn’t know what he could have done differently in that sudden, frightening encounter. As someone very familiar with the usual pace of investigations, he also thinks his arrest came with remarkable haste. According to Bryant and witnesses found by his legal team, the official investigation initially concentrated on collecting evidence that supported the driver road rage theory, rather than dispassionately seeking all facts.
Speaking with CBC reporter Amanda Lang, Bryant says his over-sized ego was humbled by the experience, including the shock of being treated as the guilty party when he felt he’d been the victim from the outset. Bryant states he gave up alcohol in 2006 and that he’d been drinking tea on the night of the incident. But in some small measure Bryant thinks his own struggles with alcoholism allow for a degree of empathy with Sheppard, who was found to be legally intoxicated on the night in question.
I’m blogging on this because media coverage can often be better at damaging reputations than restoring them – a regrettable shortcoming I wish could be redressed. As you might expect, coverage about dropping the charges didn’t get the same publicity as the initial “road rage arrest” stories.
And speaking as a cyclist (and a driver) we all need to remember how dangerous car-bike encounters can be. Consuming alcohol to excess can lead to regrettable consequences too. You don’t want to discover all this in person – or end up dead – and hope investigators and prosecutors interpret the confusion correctly.
I’ll close with Michael’s Bryant’s comments about what he went through:
“It is not a morality play about bikes verse cars, couriers verses drivers, or one about class, privilege or politics. It’s just about how in 28 seconds everything can change.”