Driver charged in vehicular manslaughter of Berkeley man is ‘legally blind’

Joseph Luft. Courtesy: Luft family

Joseph Luft died “doing what he loved,” his daughter said. Courtesy: Luft family

Update, Aug. 7: The Alameda County district attorney’s office has increased the vehicular manslaughter charge against Robert Gilchrist to a felony, according to court papers dated Aug. 7. See the complaint here. Authorities say Gilchrist struck and killed a 98-year-old pedestrian while driving in Berkeley in April.

Original story, Aug. 4: The driver charged with killing a 98-year-old former psychology professor on his daily walk in Berkeley in April had no license and told police he is “legally blind,” according to court papers that became available last week.

Robert Jack Gilchrist, 56, was charged by the Alameda County district attorney’s office July 31 with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and driving without a license, also a misdemeanor.

Vehicular manslaughter involves driving “in an unlawful manner, but without gross negligence,” according to court papers.

Authorities say Gilchrist, of Oakland, hit the 98-year-old Berkeley man as he walked in a crosswalk on Sacramento Street at Bancroft Way on April 4.

The impact pushed Joseph Luft 40 feet through the air before he landed on the asphalt, according to court papers. Luft survived the crash but later succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead at Highland Hospital in Oakland.

In court documents, police said Gilchrist had not had a valid driver’s license since 2000, and that he told officers after the crash he is “legally blind.”

Gilchrist told police he did not see Luft until the man was in front of his vehicle, in a crosswalk in a northbound lane of Sacramento.

At the time of the accident, on April 4 shortly after noon, authorities said Gilchrist was cooperating with the police investigation. Authorities said at that time that neither drugs nor alcohol appeared to be factors in the wreck.

Berkeley Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats said police found “open food” in Gilchrist’s car; KTVU described it as a “bowl of partially eaten macaroni.” Coats said Gilchrist may have been eating as he drove, but that she did not know if detectives identified that as a factor in the crash.

Police arrested the Oakland man July 28 at 10:30 a.m. Coats said she did not know whether Gilchrist turned himself in or if he had been arrested under other circumstances.

He is being held at Santa Rita Jail in Dublin with a bail of $30,000. Gilchrist is scheduled to enter a plea Wednesday at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse in downtown Oakland. He has already been arraigned.

Luft was a psychologist who invented the Johari window with Harrington Ingham in 1955 to help people better understand their relationship with others and themselves. Luft taught at San Francisco State University for more than 20 years.

The Luft family released a statement shortly after his death in April that described Luft as a World War II veteran, and “a proud father of four and beloved local figure,” who had taken a daily walk for more than 50 years.

At the time of his death, family members said they took consolation in at least one aspect of the tragic circumstances.

“While his death was sudden, he died doing what he loved,” said daughter Rachel Luft, adding that her father had turned 98 just days before his death.

Car strikes and kills 98-year-old pedestrian in Berkeley (04.05.14)
Driver strikes 3 blind pedestrians and flees (10.25.13)
Pedestrian hospitalized after car crash in Berkeley (09.26.13)
$15,000 reward offered after pedestrian hit-and-run death (07.23.13)
Sign added near site of fatal Berkeley hit-and-run (07.17.13)
Berkeley hit-and-run raises concerns for safety (07.15.13)
Hit-and-run kills pedestrian on Berkeley overpass (07.15.13)
Pedestrian in critical condition after auto accident (05.07.13)

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  • Woolsey

    So, driving legally blind without a drivers license and killing someone in a crosswalk is not gross negligence? If he killed half a dozen would that be gross negligence? Alameda DA continues to amaze.

  • guest

    I’m struggling with the charges only being misdemeanors, especially the vehicular manslaughter one.
    “Vehicular manslaughter involves driving “in an unlawful manner, but without gross negligence,” according to court papers.”

    How is driving while legally blind not gross negligence?

  • guest

    People without drivers licenses should not be allowed to register cars.

  • JW

    Disgusting and upsetting. Surely the driver knew he was legally blind and had no license. What more would he have to do for charges to be gross negligence?

  • JW

    where does it say the car was registered?

  • markh

    I have the same question.

  • markh

    I’m not a criminal lawyer, but this seems to me to be under-charged.

  • O. J. Simpson


    note to Self:

    “If I ever kill someone, remember to get charged with a misdemeanor”


  • loujudson

    I say it should be murder with prior intent. What could he have been thinking? Sure, the busses are slow but there is no excuse. How did he get off so easy? WAY beyond gross negigence!

  • Parsley

    I agree with everyone. It is appalling that this was not deemed to be gross negligence. It is actually worse than that – gross ruthlessness.

  • Tulip

    It is possible to be legally blind and have a driver’s license. It’s called “legally blind if uncorrected”. Even a legally blind person can be allowed to drive with corrective lenses.

  • That is not true. The determination of whether a person is legally blind is based on a person’s *corrected* vision. Legal blindness is defined in federal law as “central visually acuity of 20/200 or less in the better eye after best possible standard correction or visual field of no greater than 20 degrees.” The DMV says “Individuals with extremely poor vision (visual acuity of 20/200 or worse), may not be scheduled for a drive test.”

  • I disagree. I know two blind people that have vehicles registered in their names — they do not *drive* the vehicles themselves, but do use them on a regular basis, with friends or employees doing the driving. And, as pointed out by JW, we do not know (and it is irrelevant) whether or not the car Mr. Gilchrist was driving was even registered.

  • Michael

    Driving while blind is illegal in Berkeley now?? News to me. I ride a motorcycle and someone is trying to crush me every 10 seconds in this town. Lived in Chicago, NYC, LA…never seen drivers more dangerous than here. Walking around Berkeley is, itself, gross negligence. You’d have to be absolutely mad to leave your house here without a helmet and 40 pounds of protective gear.

  • KTVU now reports that the DA has charged this as a felony.

  • emraguso

    Thanks for the info. We’ll check on this too.

  • emraguso

    The Alameda County district attorney’s office has increased the vehicular manslaughter charge against Robert Gilchrist to a felony, according to court papers dated Aug. 7. See the complaint here:

  • JW

    The actions of this scofflaw led to an avoidable death; let’s hope the sentence fits the crime.

  • JW

    Agreed. He deserves to do time for this.

  • Be careful

    This is a bad neighborhood to take a walk in. Anything west of MLK should be avoided. All the crime and shenanigans take place there, and southward. Walk in the hills. Fewer people eating macaroni in their cars there.

  • Avid Walker

    Yet another terribly unfortunate crime happening in south/west berkelely. Based on this kind of Berkeleyside reporting, I’ve determined it best to take flatland walks not further west than Milvia, no further south than University. The hills are safer. Claremont/ale wood are ok. A good indicator of safety is surroundings with well kept yards, and newer, clean, more expensive cars parked on the street. You still have to be a defensive pedestrian, but the odds of crime are exponentially les in this map of “safe berkeley.” Thank you Berkeleyside for letting me know where not to walk.