Driver Sentenced in Bicycle Fatality

Family of victim, cyclist Vilhelm Hesness, agreed to plea deal

Vilhelm Hesness
Vilhelm Hesness (Photo courtesy of Luke Kimble)

"Vilhelm Hesness was a man who had a profound reverence for all life. He rescued dogs and stray cats, healed their wounds, and made them part of his family. He was the kind of man who taught adults to read and volunteered at Hospice. He held degrees in philosophy, library science, and law." Those were the words of Gerd Hesness-Frudakis as she choked back tears following the July 24 sentencing of motorist Richard Alan Lee, who struck and killed her brother, a respected 56-year old Austin attorney, as he was bicycling along Manchaca Road on July 11, 2007.

Lee pleaded guilty to manslaughter, a second-degree felony, as part of a plea agreement with Travis Co. prosecutors. He drew a sentence of eight years probation, 200 hours of community service, and 60 days in jail, in addition to losing his driver's license for one year. Bicycle advocates and others following the case expressed disappointment in the sentence. Though Lee was initially charged with intoxication manslaughter, which carries a minimum 120-day jail sentence, a grand jury handed down a manslaughter indictment. Accident reports cited "failure to control speed" as a contributing factor in the accident, and toxicology reports found five prescription drugs in Lee's bloodstream, including sedatives, an antidepressant, and a tranquilizer. Assistant District Attorney Laurie Manske said Lee's "reckless acts formed the basis for his indictment," and his sentence was based on his "lack of prior criminal history."

"This is a tragedy," Lee said as he left the court. "If I could trade places with him I would." He said drugs didn't play a role in the accident. "I've been taking them for years, and I'm still taking them today." The drugs were prescribed by two different doctors, Lee said, adding, "I had to present an affidavit that each doctor knew what the other was prescribing." To other drivers, Lee said: "Slow down and be real careful. This came up so quick, I had no way to avoid it."

The Hesness family agreed to Lee's plea deal as an alternative to a jury trial. Evangelos Frudakis, Hesness' brother-in-law, said, "We were led to believe by the district attorney that juries were historically lenient on local motor vehicle accidents." Hesness-Frudakis added, "No punishment is strong enough for the loss we feel, but we were afraid that if it went to a trial, there would've been no punishment at all, which would've been unbearable."

Anytime a case goes to trial, the outcome becomes unknown when a judge and jury select the sentencing," said Manske. "We felt like a lengthy period of supervision would assure the defendant could be held accountable and remain responsible to the community. We take bike safety very seriously and remind everyone that reckless acts can lead to tragedy."

In a letter responding to the outcome of the case, Luke Kimble, a longtime friend and riding partner of Hesness, said: "What I have learned from following this case is that a cyclist's life has little value in our court system. You can be run down and killed by a driver under the influence, and the penalty for this action is minor compared to the cost of a human life."

Following the court proceedings, Hesness-Frudakis said: "I have this horrible, scary thought that there are actually people out there who resent bicyclists and who try to scare them. That kind of thing has to be punished. With the country's fuel problems, bicycles will become more well-used, and if better accommodations aren't made for them, there will be more terrible accidents."

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