Officer describes difficult details in cyclist’s death

Rita Campos exits the courtroom Thursday.

The California Highway Patrol officer who led an investigation
of the accident that killed Gilroy resident Bruce Finch spent most
of the morning Thursday on the witness stand describing her
analysis of the impact between the cyclist and the Honda Civic that
collided with him.
The California Highway Patrol officer who led an investigation of the accident that killed Gilroy resident Bruce Finch spent most of the morning Thursday on the witness stand describing her analysis of the impact between the cyclist and the Honda Civic that collided with him.

The jury trial for Rita Campos, who faces a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence, began with brief opening statements and testimony by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office’s first witness, CHP officer Katherine Tritenbach.

Campos pleaded not guilty to the charge in July 2009. If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of one year in county jail.

So far, the prosecution has submitted more than 35 pieces of evidence, mostly consisting of photographs of damage to Campos’ vehicle, the accident scene, and views of the intersection where the accident occurred from the motorist’s perspective.

Campos is accused of causing Finch’s death Oct. 5, 2008, at the intersection of Uvas and Little Uvas roads in west Morgan Hill. Finch, an avid recreational cyclist, was riding his bicycle south on Uvas Road on the clear Sunday morning when he glanced off the left front side and across the hood of Campos’ Honda Civic, according to Thursday’s testimony and police files. Finch, 58, was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident.

Finch’s Trek bicycle and his helmet, which showed visible damage, were also admitted into evidence Thursday.

At the time of the collision, Campos was in the process of making a left turn northbound from Little Uvas Road onto Uvas.

A chief point of contention in the trial is where in the intersection Campos’ car was located at the time of the impact.

Her attorney Richard Pointer said in his opening statements that Campos, on her way from her house to church, stopped behind the limit lines before turning. But she could not see potential oncoming traffic from the south because of a utility pole, vegetation and real estate signs blocking her view.

She slowly crept forward to see around the obstructions, according to Pointer, and heard a “gut-wrenching noise” on the left front side of her car as Finch struck the vehicle.

“This is an unusual intersection,” Pointer told the jury Thursday. “In order to have an unobstructed view and make a safe transition onto northbound Uvas Road, you have to move past the intersection.”

He added that while the view left onto Uvas Road is unobstructed, there is a curve just before the intersection north of Little Uvas, around which it is difficult to see. And when Campos first arrived at the intersection she looked left, but was looking right as she inched past the objects that blocked her view, Pointer said.

However, according to Deputy D.A. Marcia Wallace and Tritenbach’s testimony, Campos told police at the scene that she did not look to her left before entering Uvas Road.

She also told police that she did not move her vehicle after the impact with Finch. Her Honda was located on Little Uvas Road about seven feet behind the white “fog line” on the western side of the road when police arrived, Tritenbach said.

But Tritenbach, the lead investigating officer of the accident and an expert witness, said if Finch struck the car from that spot he would not have ended up where his body was when police and witnesses arrived. Poster-sized photos displayed by the prosecutor show Finch’s lifeless body, covered with a blanket, in the middle of Uvas Road when Tritenbach, sheriff’s deputies and witnesses including about “20 to 40 bicyclists” arrived at the scene moments after the accident. Thus, police believe Campos moved her car back after the impact, based on a CHP reconstruction of the accident led by Tritenbach and the pattern of damage to her vehicle including a “smear mark” across the hood allegedly caused by Finch’s body. She testified that the right side of Finch’s bicycle hit the car, and the cyclist was ejected into the middle of the roadway.

However, Tritenbach said witnesses who showed up before police, moments after the impact, told officers they did not see Campos move her car.

Tritenbach added that the scene, with fire engines, backed up traffic and the crowd of bystanders was “somewhat chaotic” when she arrived. Uvas Road is a popular destination for cyclists, especially on Sundays, she added.

In her opening statement, Wallace said Finch woke up about 5 a.m. that day to prepare to ride the route which was “so frequent for him that he even mapped it out for his wife.”

She said Campos passed through the stop sign while Finch approached, and her car “struck Bruce Finch in the middle of southbound Uvas Road.”

In the audience Thursday were friends and family members of both the defendant and Finch. Some of Finch’s supporters were wearing cycling gear, and appeared to have ridden their bicycles to the courthouse. Some of his family members wept as Superior Court Judge Ronald Toff and Tritenbach detailed the accident.

In his opening statement, Pointer noted that immediately after the accident Campos was “so upset and distraught” that she incorrectly told police that she did not look to the left.

After the impact with Finch, she exited the car to check the cyclist’s condition. She brought him a pillow and towel while witnesses who just missed the accident attempted to resuscitate him, Pointer said.

“This is a case in which you will find Ms. Campos’ conduct was reasonable under the circumstances,” Pointer told the jury of five women and eight men. “We hope you will conclude this was a tragic accident.”

Further witness testimony is expected to last at least until this afternoon.

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