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Bryant cleared of both charges in cyclist's death

It took 28 seconds of chaos to leave a troubled man dead, enrage Toronto cyclists and ground the high-flying political career of Michael Bryant, the former Ontario attorney-general who was charged with running down Darcy Allan Sheppard with his convertible.

New details of that horrific half-minute emerged as the Crown withdrew both counts - criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving causing death - against the 44-year-old Liberal Party veteran on Tuesday.

While the dropping of charges pre-empted the full airing that Mr. Sheppard's friends and cycling advocates had hoped for, the Crown had no other option in the face of "objective and credible evidence" - much of it gathered in a flat-out sprint by defence counsel Marie Henein - of what happened during those 28 seconds late last Aug. 31.

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Witness statements and forensic testing including frame-by-frame video analysis, revealed that Mr. Sheppard, 33, had a history of picking fights with motorists, including one just hours before he rode his bike past Mr. Bryant and his wife, Susan Abramovitch, and cut them off as they drove home from an anniversary outing.

Witnesses said Mr. Sheppard, who was drunk according to toxicology tests, "loudly and aggressively confronted Mr. Bryant while he and his wife remained passive," prosecutor Richard Peck, brought in from British Columbia due to Mr. Bryant's past cabinet role, told court.

In a panicked bid to get away, Mr. Bryant stalled his standard-shift Saab several times, and it lurched forward and struck Mr. Sheppard, causing him to land on the hood. He fell off when the car stopped a short distance ahead, then stood up and was "clearly not seriously injured at that time," Mr. Peck said, citing security-camera footage.

When Mr. Bryant reversed and then moved forward, turning to get around the fallen bicycle, Mr. Sheppard threw his backpack at the car, "then jumped onto the vehicle as it drove away," the prosecutor said. Witness statements and forensic tests "suggest that Mr. Sheppard was attempting to enter the vehicle and attack Mr. Bryant at this time."

As the vehicle headed west in the oncoming lane, witnesses thought it reached speeds of 60 to 100 kilometres an hour, but expert analysis by the Crown and defence found the car's average speed was about 34 km/h, and "it appears that the vehicle never left first gear," Mr. Peck said. Tests also showed the car "did not rub against the curb or mount the curb at any time," contrary to accounts that Mr. Bryant had mounted the sidewalk.

As the car passed a fire hydrant one foot in from the south curb, Mr. Sheppard's left side struck it. He fell from the car, struck his head and died, the prosecutor said. Mr. Bryant, meanwhile, turned at the next intersection, stopped at the Hyatt hotel, called 911 and waited for police.

"In the circumstances, there is no reasonable prospect of establishing that the driving (albeit contributing to Mr. Sheppard's death) constituted a marked departure from the standards of a reasonable, prudent driver faced with the exceptional circumstances presented here," Mr. Peck said, adding that Mr. Bryant's explanation - that he drove off because he was terrified of Mr. Sheppard and in a state of panic - was supported by the independent evidence.

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Outside court, Mr. Peck said not only was there no reasonable prospect of a conviction, but the Crown "probably wouldn't have laid charges" against Mr. Bryant had it known last year what it has since learned in the investigation.

This didn't sit well with friends of Mr. Sheppard, who worked as a bicycle courier, and cycling advocates who had pointed to the Bryant case to highlight the friction between motorists and cyclists, and the physical vulnerability of the latter, on the streets of Canada's largest city. For many, the contrast between Mr. Bryant's status as a well-connected politician and Mr. Sheppard's gritty, troubled past seemed to drape a veneer of class warfare over the incident.

"I think many people - drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike - will feel that justice has not been served," said Yvonne Bambrick, head of the Toronto Cyclists Union. "I think it's in part due to the fact that there hasn't been a lot of transparency around this; that it's just being dropped and not going to court."

Sonia Serba, a bike courier, said Tuesday's court proceeding seemed to be less a probe into Mr. Bryant than into the checkered past of her friend Mr. Sheppard, a friend she called Al, "and Al's the victim, Al's dead."

Ms. Serba said she fears the case will send a message to motorists that it's okay to use their vehicle if they land in a confrontation with a cyclist. "I can't carry a weapon," she said, "but people can drive one."

At a news conference at a hotel near the courthouse, however, Mr. Bryant rejected characterizations of the incident as anything other than "a tale about addiction, mental health, an independent justice system, a tragic death and a couple out on their wedding anniversary, driving home with the top down."

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"It is not a morality play about bikes versus cars, couriers versus drivers, or one about class, privilege or politics," said Mr. Bryant, his manner as polished and scripted as it was last Sept. 1, when he walked from the police station, in a freshly pressed suit, to a news conference arranged by public relations firm Navigator Ltd. "It's just about how in 28 seconds, everything can change, and thereafter, time marches on."

He thanked his legal team, his employers at the Ogilvy Renault law firm and his wife for their support. He also extended sympathies to Mr. Sheppard's loved ones.

"What I will never forget for the rest of my life is the unnecessary tragedy of that night," Mr. Bryant said. "A young man is dead, and for his family and friends, that remains the searing memory."

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