Driver's Competence an Issue in Norwick Hit-and-Run

"A lot of sadness all around" as Robert Cowart appears in court, with obvious motor skill difficulties from recent stroke; prior DUI convictions revealed


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."

Maybe June 13, 2012 at 07:55 PM
I had to take my mother's car away when it became clear that she was not fully functional. Where were this guy's family members before the accident, why did they not take his keys away? Its not easy but it has to be done. My mother was so angry at me, but I said, " I cannot take the chance that you kill someone out on the road." THIS FAMILY SHARES THE BLAME!!!!
robin doran June 13, 2012 at 11:10 PM
Steve Norwick is amazing and was one of my very favorite professors at SSU. I want to wish all the best to him and to his family.
Denise Thurman June 14, 2012 at 04:48 PM
Steve, one of my great enjoyments after I graduated from ENSP was seeing you cruising around town on your bike. Ryan and I would always say, “There goes Mr. Norwick!” My wish for you is that you heal your body and mind by drawing from your strong will, creative spirit, and supportive family and friends. Rolfe, while I am horrified that you had to witness Steve's pain, I am thankful that you were there to help him--Steve was not alone. Robert, I am not excusing your actions, or the choices that you made, but I hope that you and your family can navigate through this tragedy as well, and take the opportunity to learn from it and teach others.
Janice Raridon June 14, 2012 at 10:09 PM
The laws regarding which side of the road should be used by cyclists should be reviewed. When I learn to ride a bike we rode into the oncoming traffic so they could see me and I could see them. How many accidents could have been prevented by the driver of a motorized vehicle if they could see the cyclist coming at them. Cyclists do not need to ride with the flow of traffic, they are clearly not motorized vehicles and I feel it would be much safer the "old fashion way". Regardless of anyone "right" to the road, once a cyclist and an auto tangle the cyclist always looses.


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