Cyclist's death was murder, jury decides

By Kirsten Scharnberg
Tribune staff reporter

December 5, 2001

In an emotional end to a complicated trial, Carnell Fitzpatrick was found guilty of first-degree murder Tuesday in a case Cook County prosecutors have called the first local incident of road rage in which a bicyclist was killed by an angry driver intent on seeking revenge for a minor traffic dispute.

"When you have a three-ton vehicle and maybe a 20-pound bicycle, that is no even match," Assistant State's Atty. Lynda Peters said moments after the verdict. "It's very skewed."

The verdict came after a Cook County jury had deliberated for more than 16 hours over two days. During that time, they had sent the judge a note asking for legal clarification about the definition of reckless homicide. The jury had been given the option of convicting Fitzpatrick on the lesser charge. They also were allowed to view for a second time a videotaped statement given by an eyewitness to the April 26, 1999, accident that left bike messenger Tom McBride, 26, dead.

Fitzpatrick, 31, faces 20 to 60 years in prison. He had been out of jail on bond throughout the five-day trial but was taken into custody after the ruling. He sobbed as sheriff's deputies led him from the courtroom.

In the courtroom gallery, emotions were high on both sides of the aisle. Before the verdict was announced, a half dozen courthouse deputies came into the room, standing in the center of the room, between those who were there in support of Fitzpatrick and those who were family, friends and former colleagues of McBride.

When the verdict came, Fitzpatrick's wife screamed and ran from the room. Her sobs could still be heard inside the courtroom as Judge Kenneth J. Wadas polled the jury.

In the front row, Robert McBride, the victim's father, quietly shook and cried. His wife, Mary Ellen, leaned against a son, tears running down her cheeks.

"We're grateful for them," Mary Ellen McBride said of the state's attorney's office as she left the courtroom. "They put on an outstanding case."

One of the primary elements of the trial had been the eyewitness testimony of Jerry Carter III, a Chicago man who had been jogging near the scene of the accident in the 5300 block of West Washington Boulevard.

During pretrial motions, Carter had refused to testify about what he had told police and later a grand jury: that he had seen Fitzpatrick deliberately run down McBride after the cyclist shouted curse words during a near-collision. He had also refused to testify during the trial and had done so under orders of the judge, recanting what he had earlier told authorities.

Carter had claimed he had been threatened to not testify and had warned prosecutors that he would lie on the stand. Peters, one of the two prosecutors, said after the trial that the state's attorney's office has no plans to pursue perjury charges against Carter.

Throughout much of the trial, the courtroom was packed with Chicago-area bike messengers and sport cyclists. After the verdict, George Christensen broke down as he talked about McBride, a Chicago bike messenger for seven years with whom Christensen had worked for many years.

"My toughest day of messengering--through extreme cold, extreme heat, whatever--was the day after he was killed," Christensen said in the hallway outside Courtroom 301. "I could really feel his presence that day."

Christensen said he hoped the verdict would send a signal to drivers that "vehicles are murder weapons." He added that he thought the trial's outcome would give "bicyclists a little insurance that the law is on their side."

"It could have happened to any of us," he said. "We've all had these confrontations."

Fitzpatrick's lawyer, veteran defense attorney Sam Adam, declined to comment on the verdict.

Fitzpatrick, who was transported to the Cook County Jail, is due back in court on Jan. 15 for post-trial motions and possibly sentencing.

Copyright (c) 2001, Chicago Tribune