True Justice 

Local judge's surprising lenience has friends of slain cyclist calling for his robe and gavel; plus, where's Isiah Turner now?

Friends and family of late Oakland musician Matthew Sperry are launching a letter-writing campaign demanding that Alameda County Superior Court Judge John M. True resign after he recently wrist-slapped the driver who hit and killed Sperry with a $211 fine.

On a Thursday morning one year ago, the 34-year-old Sperry was bicycling to his job at LeapFrog in Emeryville when he was struck and killed by a woman driving a friend's Ford F150 on a suspended license. Sperry was pronounced dead at the scene. His wife, Stacia Biltekoff, says police never tested the driver to see if she was under the influence. Investigators also never found any witnesses who could testify whether the driver, 46-year-old Patricia E. Humphrey of Berkeley, did anything negligent, such as run a stop sign. One witness said that afterward Humphrey was crying hysterically, tearfully asking, "Where did he come from?"

Deputy District Attorney Stuart Hing said he couldn't charge Humphrey with manslaughter just because the lethal accident occurred when she wasn't supposed to be driving. Hing says his office asked for the harshest penalty it could under the circumstances -- a misdemeanor for driving on a suspended license. A misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of six-month jail time and a $1,000 fine. "We asked for the max and didn't plea-bargain," he says.

In her statement to police last year, Humphrey said she made a full stop before turning left onto Powell from Vallejo Street and was traveling between ten and fifteen miles an hour when she hit Sperry. "I did not see him prior to the collision," she told police. Humphrey told police she hadn't consumed any alcohol or drugs the day of the accident, and also said she didn't know her driver's license had been suspended. Court records indicate she'd had her license taken away in September 2000 after running a red light and then failing to appear for her court date.

Hing brought in Sperry's loved ones to tell the judge about their grief at the court hearing last month. After Biltekoff spoke, many people in the courtroom were in tears, including the defendant. Judge True, however, chose to reduce the charge from a misdemeanor to an infraction after Humphrey pleaded no contest. "I was shocked," Biltekoff says, adding that she'd hoped the judge would at least give Humphrey probation. True is on vacation and couldn't be reached for comment. The judge, who is married to US District Court Judge Claudia Wilken, was appointed to the bench last October by Governor Gray Davis right before Davis was recalled.

Last week Sperry's musician friend John Shiurba encouraged readers of Sperry's memorial Web site (MatthewSperry.org) to send Judge True a letter asking him to resign for his "unconscionable" ruling. Shiurba's own letter said, "You may be a judge, but your judgment is very poor." He added, "You have also have sent a clear message to bicyclists everywhere -- watch out, because you have no rights!"

Sperry's case has been closely followed by the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, a bike-advocacy group. The coalition's executive director, Robert Raburn, says he is working with Antioch state Senator Tom Torlakson to introduce a bill that will stiffen penalties for unlicensed drivers involved in injury crashes. "When somebody is unlicensed, that is not an accident," Raburn says. "Somebody has already determined this person is not fit to drive."

One other detail came out of the court hearing. For the first time, the driver apologized to Sperry's wife for what she explained was an accident, according to Shiurba. "I'm hurting, too," Biltekoff recalls Humphrey telling her. "It was the first time I'd seen her in my life or heard from her," Biltekoff says. She wishes that Humphrey had contacted her much earlier. As scary as that might have been, Biltekoff says it would have helped her heal faster. "It would have helped me to know she's a human being" and also give her a chance to show Humphrey that Sperry "was a spectacular human being."

Sperry played bass on two Tom Waits albums and also performed in the San Francisco production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He also left behind a young daughter. Memorial concerts are scheduled for July 2 at the Meridian Gallery in San Francisco and for July 12 at 21 Grand in Oakland.

Consulting Isiah

The favorite new guessing game in Richmond City Hall right now is: Who is ex-City Manager Isiah Turner working for now? Turner bailed out of the sinking municipal ship in December before the magnitude of the city's financial crisis was fully known. Several councilmembers and some city executives have openly speculated about possible consulting gigs Turner may have landed with companies who have business with the city. Of course, in a company town like Richmond, that means Chevron. A Chevron spokesman says he's heard the same rumors, but says the company hasn't put Turner on the payroll.

Rumors about Turner consulting for another company, however, appear to have some substance. That company is Toll Brothers, a prominent home-builder with three major projects in the ex-city manager's city. Jim Meek, Toll Brothers' land-acquisitions manager, acknowledged that "we've used Isiah in a couple of different ways." Asked to elaborate, he said, "We've asked his thoughts on different things." Meek referred Feeder to the company's Richmond project manager for a more detailed response, but she didn't return phone calls. Turner also gave Feeder the predictable snub.

Toll Brothers negotiated a land development agreement with the city for Terminal 1 last year while Turner was still city manager. The company still must actually get its permits and go through design review before building begins. Since Richmond has no revolving-door ordinance prohibiting former city officials from representing clients with business before the city, Toll Brothers conceivably could put the former city manager to work lobbying employees he once supervised.

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