Mandeville Canyon: The Odds on Thompson

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My reporting for VeloNews on the trial of Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson as a result of actions he took on Mandeville Canyon on July 4, 2008, has been as straight and without bias as I’ve been able to construct. I can’t say it is without bias at all, though I can’t point to a place in the work where I editorialized or slanted information. However, I have left out information for the simple reason that I cannot possibly include every detail that transpires during five hours or so of testimony. I’ve done my best to include the high points and low points for both the prosecution and the defense in my effort to demonstrate the strengths and weaknesses of the respective cases.

As I mentioned, I’ve got an obvious bias in covering this case that you don’t need me to explain: I’m a cyclist. However, I have a second bias in this case, and one that could potentially make my coverage more suspect: Ron Peterson and Christian Stoehr are friends of mine. I’ve ridden thousands of miles with Ron and probably more than a thousand miles with Christian as well. When I was publishing Asphalt, Ron was one of my editors and he penned a bike review and coaching column for each issue.

I’ve left my personal opinions out of the coverage; what I think, has no place in that reporting. Also, I think if I were to skew the coverage, it would undermine our understanding of how serious this situation is.

I may have left my personal opinions out of my coverage; however, the number one question I get in e-mail and on the road is how I think the case is going. I’m asked a dozen (or more) times a day: ‘Will Thompson go down?’

I could be dead wrong in my judgment, but I’m fairly well informed; I’ve attended every hour of every day of the trial and have been the only cyclist to attend the trial in its entirety; someone needed to.

So here’s how I see things: The jury has had less than two hours to deliberate. It seems unlikely they will return a quick verdict. They are considering seven charges—six felonies and one misdemeanor. A responsible jury will consider each of the felony charges for some time.

I’ve read about plenty of cases that seemed like slam dunks only to have a jury convict for a misdemeanor and hang or acquit on a felony as a way to dodge what seemed too harsh a punishment for the defendant. Such an outcome in this case wouldn’t surprise me were it not for an important detail—the distribution of the charges.

Each of the six felonies pertains to Thompson’s actions on July 4, 2008, the actions that led to the injuries of Ron Peterson and Christian Stoehr. Should the jury become queasy about convicting a doctor of felonies, there are no misdemeanors related to that incident to hang around his neck as a slap on the wrist. The only misdemeanor in this case is the reckless driving charge that relates to the incident on March 11, 2008, with Patrick Watson and Josh Crosby.

The jury has three options, naturally. They could convict him, acquit him or hang. And while we might like the meaning of that last option to involve a rope, it is simply our preferred term for a jury’s inability to decide.

But the jury ought to be able to decide this man’s fate. Why? Well, my personal take is that Deputy District Attorney Mary Stone did what was necessary to prove Thompson’s guilt, pure and simple. While I do think Peter Swarth has been good counsel and maybe even effective counsel, even after I do my personal best to set aside my personal bias, I think Thompson is guilty based on the case Stone presented.

Ultimately, Thompson’s guilt comes down to the statements he made in his 911 call and to Officer Rodriguez. Had Thompson not made three simple statements—“I slammed on my brakes.” “I wanted to teach them a lesson.” And, “I’m tired of them.”—he’d probably be looking at a good chance of acquittal.

He did deny that he made the statements about teaching the cyclists a lesson and being tired of them. But because he didn’t deny the statements immediately preceding and following those two statements and then claiming he didn’t mean “slammed” when he said “slammed,” made him look like a liar. Or better yet, a perjurer.

While I was personally offended at some of Swarth’s tactics, I thought his defense was essentially to be expected, if not downright predicatable. I’ll admit feeling absolute outrage when Thompson said, “Bicycles are inherently dangerous because of their instability and unpredictability.”

Swarth occupied some three hours with testimony from a forensic psychologist whose entire testimony was meant to discredit the memory of Patrick Early, the first cyclist to have an altercation with Thompson. Early’s testimony was meant to go to Thompson’s mindset, and therefore his motivation, but even if the defense discredited Early—and I’m not saying they did—there was still Watson and Crosby’s incident to consider.

Still, Swarth couldn’t undo the damage Thompson had done to his own case before hiring counsel. I’ve heard that some doctors develop colossal egos that manifest through incredible arrogance. If ego and arrogance clouded his judgment enough to allow him to think his actions would go unpunished, one wonders what other sociopathic tendencies he exhibits.

So what’s it going to be?

Acquittal seems unlikely. Despite the smokescreens that Swarth blew over the case, the evidence against Thompson seems too strong to find him not guilty.

The assault with a deadly weapon charge is, shall we say, the gateway charge. This is the first charge from the July 4, 2008, incident that jurors must consider. Logically, it seems to me that if they find Thompson guilty beyond a reasonable doubt with regard to even one charge of assault with a deadly weapon, the other five charges—which includes a charge of mayhem as a result of the damage done to Peterson’s nose and carries a possible sentence of eight years—are essentially a given. If you are willing to think that Thompson used his car to threaten or intimidate Peterson and Stoehr at all, then it is virtually impossible to believe the other crimes he is charged with didn’t also take

Here’s the problem: Juror bias. It is easy for cyclists to underestimate the hostility that some people feel for cyclists. All it takes is for one person out of twelve to decide that cyclists aren’t real people or that Peterson and Stoehr had it coming or any other illogical rationalization that could undermine the proper application of justice.

We probably won’t see a verdict on Monday, though if we were to see a quick judgment, it might be good news to cyclists everywhere. It seem more likely, however, that a verdict could take days to return.

Honestly, I think there’s a 50 percent chance we’ll get a hung jury. I suppose I have to grant a one percent chance of an acquittal; it seems a remote possibility, but there is that chance. That’s leaves a 49 percent chance of conviction. I stand by my assertion: If he’s convicted of one felony count, I think he’ll be convicted on all counts. The misdemeanor in the Waton/Crosby incident hardly matters.

There is yet another wrinkle to report in this case. On Thursday, the day the case was given to the jury, Peterson sued Thompson in federal court for negligence and battery, citing permanent injuries arising from the incident. Even if Thompson gets a hung jury, or the unthinkable—an acquittal, his woes are far from over.

Photo: Chris Roberts

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  1. Sprocketboy

    I think that this analysis is very well drawn. For those of us following the case, it is of course difficult to determine the credibility of the various witnesses, or how the jury saw them. For example, the fact that the various cyclists quoted all swore at the defendant may or not have made them sympathetic whereas the description of the facial injuries suffered by one of the cyclists was too much for one juror, and would surely have made a deep impact on the others. It appears from your account that the attending police investigator’s testimony also confirms the defendant’s statements that the defendant has tried to deny in the trial. Of course, a perverse jury of cyclist-haters would derail all of this but the facts that we have seen secondhand through your reports suggest that the prosecutor’s case was a strong one.

  2. Jared

    Nice article. I’ve enjoyed your reports to VeloNews and also felt they’ve been professionally unbiased. Nonetheless, it’s good to hear your personal opinion on the matter through RKP. The juror bias is without a doubt the one thing I’m most afraid of as I wait for this verdict. It’s sad to think that had Ron and Christian not been on bicycles and were pedestrians instead, the popular opinion about the Doctor would be completely different.

  3. wcoastbo

    From the entire cycling community here in LA… thanks for daily attendence and updates. I’m sure many, myself included, would have liked to watch the trial if work committments allowed. I’m glad someone of your journalistic caliber was the person to represent us. Before finding your blog, I was thinking how unbiased VeloNews was in the coverage. It would have been too easy to rile up the readers with colorfully biased reporting… you were, if I can use a cliche, “preaching to the choir” after all. It usually takes much more thought and reasoning to write an unbiased piece.

    I was afraid that juror bias might play a big factor and your comment about it helped solidify my opinion. I’ve read many comments on different blogs about the cyclist/motorist discussion and was a bit surprised at how ignorant and downright hostile some are against cyclists. The fact that motorists greatly outnumber cyclists tells me that jury bias will be difficult to overcome. To those that spend time riding in LA, the outcome should be a slam dunk. Given the evidence presented, the fact that this case went to trial instead of settling out of court should have been a predictor that the defense’s lawyer would know how to make use of the jury bias. My guess is those on the defense would have given odds greater than your 50% that the jury would be hung, or they would have settled. Sad to say, but we live in a world highly biased towards the automobile and the defense know it.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the praise everyone. This has been the toughest assignment I’ve ever had. I believe strongly in our Constitution and the principles set forth within it and wanted him to have a fair trial in court and in the media. He deserves that and I didn’t want anyone who isn’t a cyclist who might check out VeloNews to think that we had already convicted him in our minds. That would only hurt us further with anyone who already disliked cyclists.

      Thanks for reading, both here and on VeloNews.

    1. Author

      Couldn’t be happier to have my cynicism brought up short. And having him remanded on the spot was the proverbial cherry. I was stunned when the judge made his announcement.

  4. trev

    Best news I have heard in a while. It seems that we are geting used to disappointment with regard to bug cases that seem slam dunk like this. I was actaully even less optimistic than Padraig was. I hope that doctor gets a taste a sweet justice in prison.

  5. Janet D.

    Having had the time and inclination, I attended all but day one of this trial. Throughout testimony, the jurors kept their cards close, but on watching them fidget during closing arguments, it seemed they weren’t buying the defense point of view. That they were also on the younger side probably helped the prosecution as no doubt many of them have been on bikes, skateboards, or scooters, and have an appreciation of what it’s like when cars get too close. I expected them to deliver a verdict in short order, but frankly thought that to do so would require them to give a weak willed juror (or even Thompson) a bone, and acquit on the misdemeanor charge. Rightly, they did not, and as a casual cyclist and concerned citizen, I’m proud of them. Thanks for your most interesting coverage and analysis.

  6. Sophrosune

    Two things: I hope that whatever punishment he receives serves as some kind of rehabilitation for him because he is clearly a disturbed individual. And I hope that this verdict will help draw appropriate boundaries for the behavior of cyclists and motorists sharing the road. There are consequences to our behavior and some times they involve prison time and being permanently maimed.

  7. KateNonymous

    I’ve read all of your coverage of the trial. First, let me say thank you. I didn’t see any other coverage that was so detailed, and as someone who is an (extremely!) casual cyclist married to a triathlete who rides both road and mountain, I have been emotionally caught up in this case since the crash first occurred. I am very aware that there really isn’t any reason why Thompson couldn’t have hit my husband or one of our friends, who often ride Westridge. I wish more outlets had provided the amount and quality of coverage that you did. For starters, your articles were the first place I learned that this was in fact the third known encounter between Thompson and cyclists; everything I read before the trial referred only to Patrick Watson’s incident, usually not even mentioning Josh Crosby. I had no idea that Patrick Early had also encountered Thompson. (In fact, I think that was the other piece that helped sink Thompson, in addition to his words–he displayed an evident pattern of behavior that escalated over time.)

    Second, let me say that I was impressed with how straightforward your coverage was. I found it to be very focused on what was said in court, without editorializing. You clearly put a lot of thought into your choice of adjectives (in contrast is the recent L.A. Times article about the trial, which described Thompson as “pudgy”–he may well be, but in context that single choice of adjective seemed to betray that writer’s bias).

    I would not have guessed from your Velonews articles that you were friends with any of the people involved. My impression overall was that your reporting sets standards that are rarely met in larger news channels. Thank you again for all of your hard work.

    1. Author

      All: I think we may all read the marijuana through our own particular lens, however, it is important to note that this courthouse handles an enormous number of drug cases. This is where many people report back to court on entering rehab programs, etc.

      Katenonymous: Thanks for your high praise (thank you to everyone for that matter).

      Before I take credit for anything though, I believe it is necessary and fair to mention that the amount of space given to a story is made by editors, something I am for Red Kite Prayer, but certainly not for VeloNews. My editor, Steve Frothingham, gave me a great deal more space than was originally planned. Our original plan was a story to kick off the trial and then a wrap-up. I ended up being captivated by the trial and determined that I’d give it every second I could. That meant canceling a trip to visit Easton-Bell Sports and Specialized, two companies I’d like to advertise on Red Kite Prayer.

      Editorially, in-depth reporting on an issue usually falls to niche publishing. It’s only to be expected that a cycling web site would devote more words to the Tour de France than the New York Times. Same with this trial. That said, I spent most days sitting next to Jack Leonard of the Los Angeles Times and learned a great deal from him. He’s a terrific guy and I did everything I could to help him after the way he helped me. Let me just say there are protocols to how one covers a trial and I knew none of them. Common sense is a good start, though.

      Had I editorialized in my reporting, I think Frothingham would have edited it out. Nonetheless, I knew what was required and did my best. Thompson deserved a fair shake at each turn. His conviction should rest on his actions, not my fanning flames.

      Jack’s story in which he calls Thompson “pudgy” was, I would say, a “color” piece and doesn’t follow the same strict standards needed for court reporting. I think the piece did the best job of any piece I’ve seen in the LA Times in capturing cyclist sentiment and accurately presenting roadies as a community in Los Angeles. I’m honored to have provided him some background for the piece. He’s a knowledgeable and gracious guy, just another example of why I respect the Times.

      Friends? Ron and I are tight. He was at my wedding and was one of the models for a book I’m finishing up on road riding. But I always knew my job was, as Jack Webb said, “Just the facts, ma’am.” It was an honest day’s work and created opportunities for me to present a nuanced perspective here on RKP.

  8. KateNonymous

    I also appreciate the decisions made by your editors. I wouldn’t really expect the LAT to cover the trial in depth–certainly not to publish as many articles on it as we were able to read in Velonews–but there is also larger context (or more accurately a lack of it) for color pieces on the topic. I’m not saying there isn’t room in the LAT for the word pudgy, but it probably wouldn’t have jumped out at me as much if I’d seen them cover the issue on a somewhat more regular, and broader, basis.

    I’m glad that the jury made the decision that it did, but more than that, I’m glad that Ron, Christian, and the other cyclists continue to be able to pursue their passion.

    Thanks again for the facts. I was glad to get them.

  9. kincsem

    Thanks for the detailed reporting. The case is also discussed on the bike forums here in Ireland.
    I was on a jury in a murder case and know that jurors can bring strange attitudes and opinions to the jury room.
    Again thanks for all the long hours covering the case.

    1. Author

      Kincsem: I’m amazed by the amount of attention this story has gotten worldwide, but I think it’s easy for any of us to look at the situation and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

      Ron and Christian have both told me they appreciate the support they have gotten from the cyclists following the story.

      Thanks for the kind words; I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to serve the community.

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