Judge Dismisses Charges Against Trash Truck Driver Who Struck Cyclist

Jorge Fretts was charged with vehicular homicide in February, more than a year after the truck he was driving fatally struck 24-year-old Emily Fredricks on Spruce Street.

emily fredricks settlement bike trash truck jorge fretts

Jorge Fretts struck and killed Emily Fredricks (left) while driving a trash truck in November 2017. | Images via 6ABC Action News

This is a developing story and may be updated.

A Philadelphia judge has dismissed charges against the driver whose trash truck struck and killed a 24-year-old cyclist while she was biking to work on Spruce Street in 2017.

The driver, 28-year-old Jorge Fretts, was arrested in February and charged with vehicular homicide. The District Attorney’s Office said Fretts was found to have been wearing headphones — illegal while driving in Pennsylvania — and looking down at paperwork in the vehicle’s central console when he turned right from what was technically Spruce Street’s left travel lane, cutting into Fredricks’s path along the bike lane. The crash occurred at the 11th Street intersection.

“In this case, the evidence took us to the inescapable conclusion that this was not an accident,” Anthony Voci, chief of the DA Office’s Homicide Unit, said in February. “It was due in large part to Mr. Fretts’s inattention and disregard for multiple laws.”

In response to a defense motion, Judge Lillian Ransom on Wednesday dismissed all charges against Fretts, including vehicular homicide, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless endangerment. Prosecutors have 30 days to appeal.

“We are reviewing [a potential appeal] right now,” Cameron Kline, a spokesperson for the DA’s Office, told Philadelphia magazine. “We feel there is compelling evidence and fact pattern to appeal, but we have not made that decision.”

“It wasn’t a crime”

In a motion to quash charges, Fretts’s attorney, David Bahuriak, argued that the Commonwealth “failed to meet its prima facie burden with respect to all of the charges.”

To establish a prima facie case under the law, the DA’s Office must prove that Fretts caused Fredricks’s death by acting recklessly or with gross negligence while violating a law or municipal ordinance. In the motion, Bahuriak argues that Fretts was not acting recklessly or with gross negligence at the time of the crash. He also claims that Fretts did not violate any traffic laws.

According to the motion, the Commonwealth’s sole witness, Officer Mark Eib of the Philadelphia Police Department’s Accident Investigation District, who was assigned to investigate the accident, reviewed video footage of the crash and said that Fretts did not appear to use a turn signal when turning right onto 11th Street. Eib said footage from inside the vehicle showed Fretts looking into his right and then left mirrors prior to the impact.

Bahuriak states that the primary point of impact was the truck’s passenger side, front fender area — while the second point of impact was the passenger side, between the rear tire and front tire.

The Commonwealth argued that Fretts did not use a turn signal and had been wearing headphones and looking into his middle console at the time of the turn, which Bahuriak called a “mischaracterization of fact.” In the motion, Bahuriak stated that Eib was wearing one earbud, not two, which he argues “falls within the allotted exception” to state law, and that Eib “interpreted the video as [Fretts] putting an item down, at which time he began to ‘scan’ and begin his turn.” Eib also testified that Fretts looked to the right as he was “turning when [Fredricks was] already at his right fender,” per the motion.

Bahuriak argued in the motion that Fretts had moved into a marked turning lane, past a road sign that instructed turning vehicles to “yield to bicycles.”

“It is unknown where [Fredricks] was when [Fretts] moved into [the] right lane,” Bahukriak stated. “… It is just as reasonable and likely [Fredricks] rode up next to the truck after it had already moved into the right turning lane making it impossible for [Fretts] or any driver to yield to, as one cannot yield things he/she cannot see.”

Bahuriak also argued that “any testimony regarding whether the turn signal was utilized is based on pure speculation,” because Eib had testified that he is “‘not a truck enforcement guy’,” and Eib “did not examine the truck in question and is basing his assumptions on the usual work of a turn signal,” and “the hazard lights may have been on.”

Fretts was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time or the accident, and he stayed on the scene and cooperated with police immediately after, Eib said.

In a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon, Bahuriak said the Commonwealth “needs to point to specific facts that show gross negligence in a case like this, and they just aren’t there.”

“The judge’s decision was based on evidence,” Bahuriak said. “As a resident of Center City, I understand there’s a problem between motorists and bicycles. It needs to be safer for bicyclists, and I’m all for that, but it’s wrong to make a sacrificial lamb out of a hardworking man with no record.

“It’s an accident, this was a tragic accident,” Bahuriak said. “But it wasn’t a crime.”

Fredrick’s mother, Laura Fredricks, told KYW that the family is “shocked that the judge decided to grant the motion.”

In September 2018, Fredricks’s family reached a $6 million settlement over her death, to be paid by Gold Metal Environment, which owned the trash truck Fretts was driving at the time. The company also agreed to give a total of $125,000 over the next five years to organizations that aim to make Philadelphia’s streets safer.

The DA Office’s decision to press charges in Feburary was largely seen as a win for the city’s bicycling community, which has long fought for street safety initiatives and infrastructure in Philly, especially along Spruce and Pine streets.