The Wrong Man?
By all accounts, August 14, 2004 was a good day for a drive. It was warm and sunny that Saturday, and freeway traffic was moving nicely on I-94 in Minneapolis. A little after 1:00 p.m., two men traveling east--one riding a motorcycle, the other in a car--became engaged in a heated exchange. What precisely caused the dispute and much of what occurred subsequently remains disputed. But everyone agrees how it ended--with the car ramming the bike at a busy St. Paul intersection.
Given the widespread and growing concern over road rage, then, it was no surprise that the case would wind up in Ramsey County District Court. But this was not just any road rage case. As defense attorney Robert Weisberg would tell the jury, "This is the most bizarre set of facts I've seen in almost 20 years of practicing law."
Michael Marek, the driver of the car, testified that he was on his way to get a haircut when he first noticed a black Harley Davidson with a Team Satan sticker zoom alongside him. Marek--an 18-year-old hotel worker with sandy blond hair, a boyish manner, and a clean record--claimed that the biker was gesturing wildly and seemed to be following him. At first, Marek said, he figured he'd missed the bike in his blind spot and inadvertently cut it off while merging. Though he did not testify at the trial, Scott Infante, the 28-year-old driver of the motorcycle, would claim quite the contrary: It was Marek, he said, who was the aggressor and the pursuer.
Whatever the prelude, Infante and Marek both exited the freeway at Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. At the Marshall Avenue intersection, they stopped at a red light, whereupon Infante backed up his bike to the driver's side window of Marek's Grand Am. According to witnesses, the men appeared to be having an angry discussion. In his testimony, Marek claimed that Infante was shouting profanities and telling him to watch out for motorcyclists. Then, Marek said, Infante spit at him. "He didn't hock loogy or anything, but he spit."
Aside from the principals, no one witnessed the spitting or, for that matter, overheard the words that were exchanged. But everyone saw what happened next, and it left them gape-jawed. As the light turned, Marek abruptly cranked the steering wheel to the left, punched the accelerator and rammed into the Harley, knocking over motorcycle and driver. With Infante sprawled in the roadway, Marek then drove half a block before pulling over. In short order, witnesses dialed 911, bringing St. Paul police and fire crews to the scene.
As would be expected, Marek was questioned, placed in a squad car, and taken to police headquarters for further interrogation. Infante, meanwhile, was transported by ambulance to Regions Hospital. Complaining of extreme pain, he was put on a morphine drip. A little while later, according to Infante, he received a phone call from police, asking him what happened. He told them that Marek was the aggressor and, as other witnesses would later corroborate (including Marek), that he exited the freeway before Marek.
From there, the story gets strange.
After Marek gave his statement, St. Paul police decided against issuing a citation. They even offered him a ride back to his Minneapolis apartment, an offer Marek accepted. For several weeks, Infante called the police asking when and where charges would be lodged. He heard nothing. Then one day, Infante opened his mail and discovered a citation from the St. Paul police department. He was shocked to find that he was being charged with disorderly conduct, fifth-degree assault, and having the wrong address on his driver's license. An additional charge, reckless driving, would later be added.
Not long afterward, Infante was informed that he would have to come to the St. Paul Police Department for booking and fingerprinting. After complying, he received a motion from the St. Paul city attorney's office asking that Infante be required to submit to a blood sample to test for the presence of HIV and hepatitis.
In the view of defense attorney Robert Weisberg, the criminal charges and the demand for the blood test were the result of profiling by police and prosecutors. With his tattoos, Mohawk, and black Harley, Weisberg admitted, Infante presented a vivid contrast to the boyish Marek. But, Weisberg pointed out, appearances aren't grounds for prosecution; actions are. In his statement to jury, Weisberg put it bluntly: "They charged the wrong man."
Indeed, much of the testimony seemed to support Weisberg's argument. Walter Ellison, a postal worker who was crossing Snelling Avenue right after Marek and Infante left the freeway, said he only noticed the two vehicles because "it was unusual how close the car was to the bike. It was right on the back wheel." Two other witnesses--also called by the prosecution--testified that the motorcycle wasn't obstructing the Grand Am and that Marek could have simply driven away had he wished.
One of those witnesses, a clinical psychologist named Sam Scher, testified that he was shocked when the car rammed the motorcycle. Asked by the defense attorney what he made of the spectacle, Scher responded: "I thought it was the first time I'd ever seen road rage."
Under cross-examination, Marek acknowledged that he intended to strike the motorcycle but said that it was "an evasive action." When Weisberg asked him whether he considered the safety of Infante in taking the action, Marek responded, "I wasn't particularly concerned with his safety. I was concerned with mine."
In his closing remarks, St. Paul Assistant City Attorney John Penland asked the jury to look at the incident from Marek's point of view. With his "leathers," black motorcycle, and "Team Satan" sticker, Infante presented a menacing spectacle to the younger driver, Penland argued. "Mr. Marek was under extreme and severe and maximal stress and strain," Penland offered. "We don't always make the right decisions in those situations."
In response, Weisberg asked the jurors to consider, "Who was the real aggressor? Who followed who?"
In the end, Weisberg's arguments swayed the day. After deliberating for several hours, the jury returned the verdict: not guilty on all counts. For Infante, who said he declined a plea bargain as a matter of principle, it was a moment of vindication. But he remains angry that Marek wasn't prosecuted for running him down. Penland declined to comment on that issue. In fact, he declined to comment on anything, even the correct spelling of his name. "I don't give you permission to use my name," he told City Pages.
And while Penland told the jury that no serious injuries occurred as a result of the incident, Infante said afterward that he has racked up about $10,000 in medical bills. That was not the extent of the damages he suffered in the wake of the run-in. He said he lost his job as a club bouncer because of time missed owing to his injuries and chronic pain.
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