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June 16, 2004

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Publication Date: Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Misdemeanor charge in crosswalk death Misdemeanor charge in crosswalk death (June 16, 2004)

** District attorney's decision outrages relatives.

By David Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer

Misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges have been filed against Atherton resident Adele Elliot, 83, the driver of the car that killed Atefeh "Amy" Bijan, 75, in a crosswalk on Santa Cruz Avenue near Palo Alto Way on the morning of January 9.

Ms. Elliot committed a vehicle code infraction of failing to yield to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, said Peter Lynch, a deputy district attorney. She will likely go before a judge for arraignment in mid to late July, with a trial to follow some two to three months later, Mr. Lynch said.

Misdemeanor charges can result in a sentence of up to a year in jail and/or probation. The state Department of Motor Vehicles took away Ms. Elliot's driving privileges in February, Mr. Lynch said. "I think it would be very difficult for her to get them back at this point," he added.

Although the accident resulted in a pedestrian death, felony charges would have been appropriate only if Ms. Elliot recognized the impending danger and proceeded anyway, Mr. Lynch said.

Ms. Bijan's daughters, Shabnam Anderson and Sherry Bijan, called the misdemeanor charges "a slap on the hand" and compared it to shoplifting and a traffic ticket. "This word is inappropriate for this huge crime," Ms. Anderson said.

"We lost our beautiful mother, a vibrant woman who had years and years left to her," Ms. Anderson said. "It's a tragedy beyond words. It's shattered our lives. We don't know how to live with it."

Vehicular manslaughter -- whether misdemeanor or felony -- has clearly defined parameters, Mr. Lynch said. Everything has to be double checked, he said, including accident diagrams, witness accounts, evidence, and coroner reports.

A five-month interval between the accident and the filing of charges is typical when a death is involved because the investigation is more thorough, Mr. Lynch said.

The accident

Ms. Bijan was struck by a two-seater Mercedes-Benz in a crosswalk on Santa Cruz Avenue near Palo Alto Way on the morning of January 9.

The car stopped briefly in the crosswalk after the collision, then continued toward the side of the road at about 5 mph for about 50 feet while dragging the body of Ms. Bijan underneath the car, witness Marie Klein told the Almanac at the time.

The police report determined that Ms. Bijan died instantly, Mr. Lynch said. "The part of this that horrified onlookers is that (Ms. Elliot) drove over the victim a second time," he said.

"Once you're behind the wheel, it's a privilege. This privilege must be taken very, very seriously," said Ms. Anderson. "If you're alert and paying attention to what you're doing, you will not kill someone. ... Killing (her) and dragging (her) is reckless driving. To us, it doesn't seem like this should be a misdemeanor."

When Ms. Elliot parked her car and stepped out, Ms. Klein said she screamed at Ms. Elliot: "There's a person under your car!" Ms. Elliot did not respond, Ms. Klein said, but "just wandered around, wondering what was going on," eventually coming over and tugging on Ms. Klein's sleeve. Ms. Klein said she then "yelled it into her face," at which point she said Ms. Elliot appeared to grasp the import of what had happened.

Ms. Elliot's age and statements at the time of the accident were factors in the decision to charge her with a misdemeanor, Mr. Lynch said.

The layout of the roadway where the accident occurred was not a factor, he said.

The mid-block crosswalk spans a five-lane quarter-mile stretch of road uninterrupted by traffic lights or stop signs. The crosswalk, located near a convalescent hospital and a retirement community, is maintained by the San Mateo County Department of Public Works.

A few blocks north on Santa Cruz Avenue, near the intersection with Sharon Road, another mid-block crosswalk maintained by the city of Menlo Park spans two lanes in a residential area. Bright flashing lights embedded in the pavement warn drivers when pedestrians are present.

Ms. Bijan's friends and relatives have maintained a memorial of flowers and candles near the crosswalk and have twice staged protests in which a small group of pedestrians would cross and recross the street with signs asking drivers to slow down. Several drivers became angry and the California Highway Patrol put a stop to the protests, Ms. Anderson said.

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