The family and friends of fallen cyclist Bobby Cann were outraged late last month when Cook County circuit court judge William H. Hooks sentenced motorist Ryne San Hamel, who killed Cann while speeding and drunk, to just ten days in jail.
In the early evening of May 29, 2013, after partying in Wrigleyville, San Hamel was driving his Mercedes downtown on Clybourn at about 60 mph, twice the speed limit, when he slammed into Cann, 26, who was biking north on Larrabee on his way home from his job at Groupon. The impact severed the cyclist’s left leg, and he died soon afterwards. When San Hamel’s blood was drawn more than three hours later, he was still found to have a blood alcohol level of .15 percent, nearly twice the legal limit.
It was shocking that Hooks chose to give San Hamel this minimal sentence (plus four years of probation and $25,000 in restitution to cover Cann’s funeral expenses). After all, the minimum sentence in Illinois for aggravated DUI causing death is three to 14 years in prison, except for in cases where the court finds “extraordinary circumstances.” Moreover, San Hamel, now 32, had on two different occasions previously been arrested for alcohol-related offences while behind the wheel.
In an effort to understand what might have motivated the judge’s ruling, last week I viewed security-camera footage of the crash and analyzed the transcript of the January 26 sentencing hearing. (To my knowledge, I’m the only reporter who has seen these materials.) Having done so, I still think Hooks made a terrible decision.
The video footage shows the moment when the two young men’s paths tragically crossed, around 6:35 PM. Cann appears as a small figure on his bicycle. Heading north on Larrabee, he slowly approaches Clybourn, then proceeds north through the intersection, through a red light.
As he enters the intersection, a southeast-bound driver is stopped in the turn lane northwest of the intersection, waiting to turn north onto Larrabee. We see a second car approaching from the northwest, and then a third car, San Hamel’s silver Mercedes, which passes the second car on the right at a high rate of speed. (A crime-scene reenactment expert later estimated that San Hamel was doing between 58 and 64 mph.)
The crash takes place in the center of the intersection. The video shows San Hamel slamming his Mercedes into the left side of Cann’s body. His bicycle flies off to the west side of the street, tumbling over a parked car, while Cann rolls over the hood and windshield of the Mercedes and is carried off on the roof. The front right side of the car is crushed and the windshield is shattered. San Hamel swerves left into oncoming traffic.
San Hamel then swerves sharply again, this time to the right, in an effort to avoid an oncoming black Infiniti. As he does, Cann’s limp body is thrown from the roof to the street, coming to rest at the east curb. Then, the front left side of San Hamel’s car collides with the front left side of the Infiniti.
About a minute later, San Hamel gets out of his badly damaged Mercedes, walks over to Cann and kneels by his body. Then a nurse arrives on the scene and applies a tourniquet to the cyclist’s leg. Roughly four minutes after the crash, Chicago Fire Department paramedics show up and rush Cann to Northwestern Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:09 PM.
In October 2014 San Hamel hired high-profile defense attorney Sam Adam Jr., who had previously defended R. Kelly and Rod Blagojevic. Adam tried various strategies to get the charges dropped, such as claiming that San Hamel’s blood-alcohol testing had been mishandled. It wasn’t until mid-December of last year, about a month after Hooks was retained as judge during the November election, that Adam announced the defense’s intention to seek a plea deal.
At last month’s hearing, following a conference between the defense, prosecution, and Judge Hooks, San Hamel pleaded guilty to all charges.
During the sentencing, Cann’s girlfriend, Catherine Bullard; his uncle, John Santini; and his mother, Maria, read victim-impact statements. Maria Cann described Bobby as a high achiever and loving son who was thoughtful enough to write her a letter on her 50th birthday thanking her for 50 things she’d done for him.
“I was . . . very, very proud of the man that Bobby had become,” she said. “The defendant’s decision to drink and drive rendered that all meaningless.”
Then, the defense and prosecution presented arguments in regard to sentencing.
Adam noted that more than 100 letters had been submitted in support of San Hamel, and that, since the crash, the defendant had been volunteering as a coach in a youth baseball league, undergone evaluation for drugs and alcohol, and earned two associate’s degrees.
“The one thing that’s for sure here is that Mr. San Hamel is accepting responsibility, your honor, and is extremely remorseful,” Adam said. “A penitentiary sentence would not serve society.”
Assistant Cook County state’s attorney Jennifer Coleman made the case for prison time, but Hooks seemed largely unconvinced by her arguments. When she brought up the two previous alcohol-related arrests behind the wheel, both in 2003, the judge argued that since that since one of the charges, for misdemeanor DUI, had been dropped as part of a plea deal, it wasn’t relevant to San Hamel’s current case.
“I cannot . . . punish him [for] something that he can’t confront,” Hooks said.
Coleman asserted that that the now-defunct website that San Hamel was working for at the time of the crash, allyoucandrink.com, encouraged binge drinking.
“That’s not persuasive,” Hooks responded.
Finally, San Hamel addressed Cann’s loved ones. Weeping, he described kneeling before the dying man and “cupping blood out of his mouth,” holding his hand and cradling his shoulder.
“I just hope that you can feel some type of remorse [from] me, or forgiveness in your heart,” he concluded. “I wish I could change everything that happened, but I can’t.”
Before announcing the sentence, Hooks explained his rationale to the courtroom. He acknowledged that Cann was an “extraordinary person” but argued that San Hamel was “another driven person. . . . Both of these young men had a drive for life that [was] so vital, so strong . . . of such great potential. But, after that collision, only one could walk away.”
The judge added that he factored San Hamel’s “remorse” about the killing into his sentencing decision. He noted that in the past he had sentenced other defendants to prison terms as long as 45 years because they were dangers to society. (Indeed, in 2015, Hooks sentenced Andrew L. Jones to three years prison after Jones pleaded guilty to aggravated DUI and reckless homicide in the 2013 death of his girlfriend Chantelle Jones.)
“If I have someone who gets it, and is remorseful, and understands the seriousness of the matter before the court,” Hooks said, “I really got to weigh whether or not that prison sentence is what he needs.”
Adam and Hooks didn’t respond to my interview requests; San Hamel was serving his ten-day sentence while I researched and wrote this article and was not available for comment.
But for their part, Cann’s friends and family, as well as cycling advocates, say the sentence was unjust.
—Catherine Bullard, Bobby Cann’s girlfriend
Former Active Transportation Alliance crash-victim advocate Jason Jenkins, who attended the hearing, told me he thought San Hamel’s remarks “border[ed] on repulsive.”
“It reminded me of the Brock Turner rape case, in which the perpetrator presented himself as the injured party who bore no responsibility for the crime,” Jenkins said. “It reeked of willful obliviousness and privilege.”
Jenkins said Hooks also gave an inordinate amount of weight to the fact that San Hamel had the green.
“Bobby made a mistake,” Jenkins said. “But the judge . . . equated Bobby’s one poor choice with San Hamel’s multiple choices to be a selfish and dangerous public menace.”
Bullard argued that the claim that San Hamel felt remorse rang false because the defense had sought, over nearly four years, to use technicalities to throw out the charges, and had argued that Cann was the one responsible for the crash because he ran a red.
In addition, Bullard and Jenkins both say that Hooks didn’t seem to take the scientific evidence of San Hamel’s intoxication seriously. Instead, the judge said during an earlier hearing that, taking into account the defendant’s “gait” and “arm swing” in the video footage, he didn’t appear drunk, so he wasn’t convinced that San Hamel was impaired.
Hooks also painted a picture of two equally bright, productive, potential-filled men who happened to meet under tragic circumstances.
“But San Hamel and Cann couldn’t have been more different,” Jenkins said. “Bobby was someone who lost his father to cancer young, was raised along with his three siblings by a single mom, . . . biked halfway across the country, taught himself to write software code, and volunteered helping recently released convicts to reintegrate into society, and who inspired the people he met with his boundless enthusiasm and lust for life. Ryne San Hamel was a child of wealth and privilege who got a couple of associate’s degrees and went in on an online business called All You Can Drink.”
Bullard says a sentence of three years in prison—but better yet eight to ten—would have been the appropriate penalty.
“The sentence, as it is, shows us that even if you get drunk and get behind the wheel—already a crime—and then kill someone—a yet more egregious crime—it’ll still be OK,” she said.
Bullard and Jenkins’s logic makes sense. The judge basically ignored the plentiful evidence as to why San Hamel needed a longer sentence, and the public is less safe because of his decision. Hopefully voters will remember this case six years from now in 2022, when William H. Hooks will again be up for reelection. v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.