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Driver Who Killed Cyclist Hector Avalos May Plead Guilty Soon

Hector Avalos. Photo via Facebook.

A key hearing in the criminal case against the driver who allegedly struck and killed cyclist Hector Avalos while drunk will take place on August 20.

Robert Vais was charged with a felony aggravated DUI and two misdemeanor DUI charges in the wake of the December 6th, 2013 crash. Vais has asked the judge for a “402 Conference,” a conference between his lawyer, the prosecutor, and the judge, which could pave the way for the defendant to plead guilty. If the parties agree on a potential sentence for Vais, he will have the option of pleading guilty, so that the case does not go to trial. In such cases, it’s common for some leniency to be granted in exchange for the guilty plea.

It's critical that there be a strong turnout at the hearing from supporters of the Avalos family, including members of the bike community, to let the judge know they want to see justice served. If Vais is guilty of taking a life while driving drunk, he must not be let off with a slap on the wrist.

On the night of the fatal crash, Avalos was biking back to the South Side from his job as a line cook at El Hefe restaurant in River North. Vais, an administrator at Stroger Hospital, reportedly attended a staff Christmas party in Little Italy prior to the collision. At 11:58 p.m., was driving to his home in southwest suburban Riverside in his minivan when he struck Avalos on the 2500 block of West Ogden in Douglas Park. The victim was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 12:38 a.m.

Avalos was 28 years old at the time of his death. He loved to camp, fish, barbecue, and share his knowledge of outdoor skills with his many friends. After serving his country in the Marines, he began working in the restaurant industry with the goal of becoming a chef. Sadly, that dream will go unrealized because his life was tragically cut short.

Robert Vais.

According to the police report, Vais stayed on the scene after the crash and told a responding police officer, “I was the driver of that van over there. I hit him. Is he OK?” The officer testified that Vais smelled of alcohol and had bloodshot eyes, which is why he decided to arrest the driver and take him to a hospital for blood alcohol level testing. The driver was found to have a blood alcohol content of 0.118 percent, well above the legal limit of 0.08 percent.

During the year and a half that has passed since Avalos' death, the defense has made attempts to dismantle the case against Vais. In May of 2014, they filed a motion to invalidate results of the blood test, arguing that blood alcohol testing is unreliable -- a common tactic in DUI cases. However, the State’s Attorney’s office brought in an expert toxicologist who testified that that BAC tests are generally accurate.

The next strategy from the defense team was a Motion to Quash Arrest, claiming that the police officers who took Vais into custody did not have probable cause. If the motion had been granted, the case would have been thrown out of court. At a September 2014 hearing, one of the arresting officers testified that the driver had looked and smelled drunk and had repeated himself several times while asking about Avalos' condition. As a result, the judge denied the motion.

Recently, the defense requested the 402 Conference, a step towards a potential guilty plea. Avalos family attorney Michael Keating of Keating Law Offices (a Streetsblog Chicago sponsor) declined to comment on the upcoming conference due to the family’s ongoing wrongful death lawsuit against Vais and Stroger Hospital. However, criminal defense attorney Damon Cheronis of the Law Offices of Damon Cheronis offered to explain what will happen at the August 20 hearing.

During the the 402 Conference, held in Judge Nicholas Ford’s chambers, the prosecution will disclose aggravating factors in the case with the judge, and the defense will disclose mitigating factors, according to Cheronis. This may be information that would otherwise not be admissible during a trial.

After hearing this additional info, Ford will propose a sentence for Vais, Cheronis said. The defense may choose to accept or reject the judge's recommended sentence. If they reject the offer and plead not guilty, the case will go to trial, and there will be no option to change judges, even though Ford may have heard otherwise-inadmissible info about the case during the 402 Conference.

Avalos' survivors include younger twin siblings and his mother Ingrid Cossio, who organized a memorial on the one-year anniversary of his death. Supporters of the family and others who wish to see justice served are encouraged to attend the August 20 hearing, which takes place at 9:30 a.m. at the Cook County Courthouse, 26th and California. If you wish to attend, allow yourself 30 minutes to go through security, and keep in mind that cell phones and other electronic devices, as well as tools of any kind, are not permitted in the courthouse.

Updated on Monday, July 20. The post was updated to clarify the definition of a 402 Conference based on an interview with criminal defense attorney Damon Cheronis.

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