Mandeville Canyon: The Odds on Thompson
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