Driver Found Not Guilty in 2016 Death of Thu Phan

The disabled activist was killed in her wheelchair by a city employee as she crossed Seventh and Market streets.

Thu Phan, age 38, was killed on Seventh and Market streets on Feb. 5, 2016. (Images courtesy Phan family)

James Harris, the 69-year-old driver who hit Thu Phan, age 38, in her wheelchair on Seventh and Market streets in February 2016, was found not guilty of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter by a jury Tuesday. 

Phan, a disability rights advocate and employee of the U.S. Department of Labor, was catapulted from her wheelchair when she was hit by Harris as she crossed Market Street on Feb. 5, 2016. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease, Phan was already vulnerable to injury. She was rushed to the hospital, but died from her injuries the following day. 

Harris, who was driving a city-owned white Prius at the time of the incident, went to trial for the incident on Jan. 2. His attorney, Dana Drusinsky, argued that her client was driving carefully when he entered the intersection, despite making a left turn that was later deemed to be illegal. While she didn’t deny that Harris did hit Phan with his vehicle, Drusinsky claimed her death was not due to the impact, but rather “gross medical negligence” from hospital staff who overloaded her small, 37-pound frame with liquid, spurring brain swelling that killed her. 

Prosecutor Kara Lacy denied such a notion, calling on a witness who stated she saw Harris honking his horn as he tried to turn left onto Market while pedestrians crossed the street. During the trial she showed videos of the incident, claiming Harris entered the intersection without stopping and tried to cut in front of a male pedestrian who was walking north before he hit Phan. 

Regardless, the jury acquitted him of the charge. 

“There was no evidence that he did anything a reasonable person wouldn’t do,” Drusinsky told Bay City News. “This was just a series of tragedies that led to this situation, it wasn’t a crime.” 

Retired mailman Don Henvick served on the jury, and says that Phan’s medical treatment did not appear to be a significant factor in the case. The jury’s conclusion was instead based on whether the prosecution proved negligence. 

“We were all mostly of the opinion that he might have been somewhat negligent but it didn’t rise to the level of overcoming reasonable doubt,” he said. 

Harris’s trial may be over, but two more drivers will face juries in the near future: Nicky Garcia, who killed Heather Miller while driving a stolen car in Golden Gate Park on June 22, 2015, has been in jail since his arrest in July of that year. The same day Miller was killed, Katherine Slattery was hit by driver Farrukh Mushtaq on Seventh and Howard streets. He made bail, and his case is working its way through the courts.

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