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Judge says driver ‘didn’t look’ when she fatally struck cyclist

Trish Cunningham s daughter, Morgan, leaves flowers on Sept. 28, 2013, at the location where her mother was killed. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Ten months after she hit and killed a bicyclist on a narrow two-lane road, Whitney Decesaris took the witness stand Wednesday and described the first thing she noticed about the unconscious rider lying face-down beside the road: “That she had a wedding ring on.”

With the husband and three children of Trish Cunningham watching from the front row of an Annapolis courtroom, Decesaris wept as she said she saw Cunningham climbing a hill ahead of her mini-van, “swerved to avoid hitting her, and I heard contact with my vehicle.”

District Court Judge Robert C. Wilcox, who lives not far from where the fatal accident occurred Aug. 21, 2013, found Decesaris at fault.

“The question that begs to be answered,” Wilcox said, “is why the defendant did not see Ms. Cunningham. She was in the roadway where she had a lawful right to be. I know: You didn’t look. I do have a duty to look when I am driving a car.”

The case trained a spotlight on the relationship between drivers and cyclists, a fact underscored by the scores of people who filled every seat in the courtroom for a routine that rarely draws spectators. Cunningham was prominent in her church, a noted athlete and a high school cross country coach.

Cycling advocates had contended that the circumstances were egregious. Cunningham was struck from behind on a sunny afternoon while wearing a cycling jersey with a reflective stripe down its back. She was climbing a hill that comes after a long stretch of straight road on Riva Road just south of Annapolis.

After a county grand jury last year opted against bringing criminal charges against Decesaris, she faced four traffic citations that would accrue points against her driver’s license and carry a total of $2,000 in fines. She appealed the citations because she wanted her day in court, said her lawyer, Richard Simmons.

Neil Tatterson testified that he was driving behind Decesaris, that he saw Cunningham ahead of them both and that he did not see Decesaris’s brake lights come on before she struck the cyclist. He said Decesaris did not swerve until she hit the bike.

County police Cpl. Jerry Fiesler, who conducted the accident investigation, was challenged by Simmons, who said “there was no way to avoid” [the collision].

“This accident was preventable,” Fiesler responded.

Simmons argued that, although the road was straight and the day was sunny, a tall stand of trees at the hilltop where the accident occurred may have made seeing Cunningham more difficult.

A defense witness, Richard Garden, a Severna Park oral surgeon, said he was driving behind Decesaris and did not see the cyclist.

“I really didn’t see the van do anything at impact,” Garden said. “I saw it jerk to the left, but not much.”

Garden said he drives that portion of Riva Road daily, and was talking with his wife by cellphone when the collision occurred. He said the combination of shade with bright sunlight shining through the trees was “almost like being in a room with a strobe light.” He said it was not uncommon to see cyclists on that portion of road.

Decesaris, who followed Garden to the stand, did not cite the mix of shadows and sunlight as a problem. She said there was “no reason why” she didn’t notice Cunningham until just before she hit her.

Wilcox found her guilty of three of the four traffic citations — failure to exercise caution,  negligent driving and failure to control speed — each carrying a maximum fine of $500. Saying there was no evidence that Decesaris made any attempt to drive around Cunningham, he dismissed a charge of driving left of the center line and unsafe passing.

Simmons said Decesaris had 30 days to consider an appeal, but that he doubted she would file one.

“My client doesn’t want the contention,” he said. “My gut is telling me this is closure.”

Jerry Cunningham, the victim’s husband, took the stand to read a statement.

“All of us will never be the same,” he said. “I’m hopeless without her. I’m a lost soul.”