A mid-sized man shuffled slowly down the hallway outside Courthouse 9 at Sonoma County Superior Court this morning, his arms held stiffly before him, an mixed entourage of half-a-dozen family members behind him. Dressed in a blue shirt with white air, he looked far older than his 68 years.
Five minutes later Robert E. Cowart was called for arraignment before Superior Court Judge Robert Laforge. The charges were related to the hit-and-run injury accident that sent popular , also 68, flying into a drainage ditch on Petaluma Hill Road Friday morning, June 8, and into a coma from which he has yet to awaken.
Deputy District Attorney Troye Shaffe called for a postponement of the arraignment because of additional information in the case - which included three previous DUI charges against Cowart - and asked for an increase in bail to $100,000 from the current $30,000. (His family posted bail yesterday, and Cowart was released from custody then.)
Cowart's conflict attorney George Boisseau disagreed. "There is nothing in this case that would warrant higher bail," he argued. "This is a straight hit-and-run."
Boisseau characterized Cowart as a long-standing contributing member of his community who, despite his health issues, had taken the trouble to appear in court today for arraignment, has a family to support, and who had not taken a drink in "eight years" - since his DUI conviction in Feb. 2005. "Publicity is not a reason to increase bail," said Boisseau.
Cowart, he said, had another conflict - a doctor's appointment on Friday at the Veterans Hospital for treatment for a recent stroke and aneurism.
A few minutes earlier, Santa Rosa Cycling Club member Creighton Bell was outside the courtroom, waiting for Cowart's arraignment.
"It's just very odd," said Creighton, who was among the small party waiting at JavAmore in Penngrove for Norwick to join them last Friday. ""The place it happened, the statements that have come from the defendant… there's something wrong."
That something was clearly revealed to be the physical health of Robert Cowart.
"It helps to see the man," said Bicycle Coalition member Jim Draeger outside the courtroom following the arraignment. "Now it makes sense how it happened."
"When I saw Robert Cowart come forward I was surprised, I hadn't heard anything about his background or condition," said . "It was a surprise to see that he had some obvious motor issues, and I was surprised to hear about the DUI background, whether or not it's relevant is unclear.
"But with the motor skills and recent stroke, it seemed clear to me he should not have been driving a car at all."
Earlier in the morning, a bike ride in support of Steve Norwick was called by the Santa Rosa Cycling Club, and about 50 cyclists showed up to ride from Old Courthouse Square to the Superior Court. Many of them stood outside the courthouse, in bike rider's regalia, with handwritten signs saying simply, "I support Steve Norwick."
Norwick has been an active cyclist for years, who "walks the talk" as one said, making the hit-and-run accident a natural one for such public demonstration. Their purpose was on the surface just to remind drivers and cyclists of the mutual rights of the road that each should respect.
Following the court appearance, however, their mood became even more somber. Said one cyclist, "The man looked like he could not walk, let alone drive. He should not have been allowed behind the wheel of a car."
The date of Cowart's stroke was not made clear in court, but the judge did take the step of postponing formal arraignment until Monday, June 18, and referred the matter of Cowart's bail to review.
Cowart remained out of custody, with the obvious conditions that he not drive, drink or take other drugs.
He left the hearing in a wheelchair, his family entourage following.
"I guess I’m not surprised to find the case is more complicated, and less straight-forward than we might have thought," said Lupien. "There's a lot of sadness all around, the whole situation."