Patrick Watson, Ron Peterson, Deputy DA Mary Stone and Josh Crosby (l-r)
With the courtroom filled to capacity and people lined shoulder to shoulder along the back wall, Dr. Thompson was the last to enter the court and his appearance was a surprise. Dressed in blue prison scrubs and shackled, he took short steps to his seat and once seated I could tell he had lost a significant amount of weight while in prison, perhaps as much as 20 pounds. Frankly, it had done him good.
I really hadn’t given a lot of thought to the statements that might be made by the victims. In my mind I had thought, “Yadda, yadda, stiff sentence. Next.” As for the friends and family, I figured, “Yadda, yadda, great guy. Next.” I didn’t think that it would be much of an opportunity to shed new light on a situation that had brought international attention to the tension between cyclists and drivers. The formality would end with Thompson’s sentencing and my only concern was that if he walked out of court that day, the cycling community would feel utterly marginalized. Any jail time at all would be a success.
I was surprised to see that Christian Stoehr did not attend. Christian’s perspective on the events of July 4, 2008, has been entirely more detached and, dare I say, even relaxed than anyone else’s, even Deputy DA Mary Stone; I attribute it to the fact that he spent most of his formative years in Germany. And while it wouldn’t have surprised me if in his mind he was finished with the case and ready to move on, as it turned out, he was working on location in San Antonio and had wanted to attend.
Judge Millington indicated he would allow three people to speak for each side, given that Stoehr was not in attendance. Peter Swarth, as has been typical of his demeanor throughout the case, asked the judge to allow more people to speak on behalf of his client, but was denied.
Patrick Watson was the first to speak and I was surprised by the degree of his anger; he seemed as angry as when I spoke to him on the phone in December 2008, some nine months after the actual incident. As he told the judge, “Mr. Thompson tried to kill us,” it was apparent that he really believed Thompson had meant to do more than just scare him and Crosby that day. Judging from the reactions of several people in court, there was some perception that his anger was a bit overblown relative to the experience he’d had with Dr. Thompson. What did resonate was when he spoke of Thompson’s lack of remorse for his actions. While it was true that Thompson’s defense did not permit him to accept responsibility for what happened, the remose he had shown on the witness stand during the trial had rung hollow to the cyclists present. To the degree that any one of the victims has given the defense license to speak of cyclists wanting vengeance, I’d have to say Watson has enabled them to play that card.
Josh Crosby was more restrained in his statement. For the most part, he addressed Thompson directly and the judge only at the very end. When he spoke of how Dr. Thompson’s actions had placed everyone in the courtroom—“your actions led to this day; you put us here”—it eliminated the ability to see his participation in the trial as retribution, but rather as a requirement of civic duty.
He showed real compassion for Thompson’s family as well in saying, “I’ve been on the other side; I had to watch someone close to me go away for a while. I’m sorry ofor all the cyclists involved in this, but mostly I’m sorry for you Dr. Thompson. I’m sorry that after doing grave harm unto others you show no remorse. I’m sorry that as a man, you take no responsibility for those actions.”
As he spoke of watching someone close to him “go away,” his voice broke slightly in the remembering.
When Ron Peterson rose to speak, the already hushed courtroom seemed to go even quieter. The strain of the trial was writ large on his face and his movements were very restrained. If watching him speak was uncomfortable, I believe it wasn’t half the discomfort he felt.
You can see the entirety of Peterson’s statement in a post that accompanies this, as well as Dr. Thompson’s statement and the statement made by Judge Millington here.
When Dr. C. Thomas Thompson, Dr. Thompson’s father rose to speak, I was surprised that a 60-year-old man had the good fortune to still have his father. He rambled a bit, but several points in his address made an impact on at least some present. He talked about how his son’s “widow-maker” obstruction had the potential to make any prison sentence a life sentence. It was a sobering thought. He talked about remorse, the remorse his son had shown since moving in with his parents in Oklahoma, to which many of us present shrugged our shoulders as if to say, ‘Telling your father you’re sorry isn’t the same as telling the victims you are sorry.’
Most disturbing was him describing what occasioned his son’s move back to Oklahoma, that he had “been ridden out on rails.” I’ve heard the assertion before from Swarth and was unwilling to give it any greater weight than a convenient defense tactic. The elder Thompson’s recounting of death threats against Dr. Thompson should give cyclists everywhere pause, perhaps none more so than Patrick Watson, who first posted Dr. Thompson’s contact information on the Internet. We, as a community, should hang our heads in shame over the threats that Dr. Thompson received. We are better than this. The machinery of justice is less likely to stand by our side if we are perceived to engage in vigilante actions.
In the time Tom Freeman, the head of the Upper Mandeville Canyon Homeowner’s Association, spoke, he devoted most of his effort to PR for all the great things the homeowner’s association had done in making Mandeville Canyon a nice place to live rather than talking about why Dr. Thompson really deserved leniency in sentencing. Were it me, I’d have expected a little more direct support.
Last to speak on Thompson’s behalf was Lillian Ferguson. To the degree that anyone put a truly human face on Thompson, Ferguson did it. She told a moving story of her daughter’s relationship with Thompson, how he taught her piano at his home, her aspiration to play Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” as well as he did, and her death in a car accident when she was 18 years old. Dr. Thompson and another doctor, she said, took it upon themselves to pay for her funeral and—through tears at this point—each week for the past 14 years Thompson has had flowers placed on her grave.
Just as the verdict came with a surprise—Dr. Thompson being remanded to custody on the spot—that Dr. Thompson chose to address Peterson, Watson, Crosby and Patrick Early (the cyclist who came forward and told of an altercation he’d had with Dr. Thomspon after he read about Peterson and Stoehr in the L.A. Times) was a big surprise.
I think nearly everyone present in court was shocked to hear Dr. Thompson say he took responsibility for his actions on July 4, 2008, that he admitted he was at fault for the injuries Stoehr and Peterson sustained. I don’t think anyone present would argue that he hadn’t done some soul-searching since his conviction.
We speak of people who are out of touch as needing a “come to Jesus.” Dr. Thompson had his. I saw tears of embarrassment, shame, love and truly, remorse. But oddly, Dr. Thompson’s reckoning seemed only to apply to the events of July 4. In addressing Watson and Crosby, he reminded them how they frightened him and went on to insist that he never encountered Early, despite the avowed car guy’s thorough description of the car and partial plate.
Even after Dr. Thompson’s statement, Swarth continued to stand by the defense conceit that Dr. Thompson was only stopping to take a photograph. To stand by that story means standing by the assertion that Stoehr and Peterson somehow brought the day’s events on themselves, that they were in some way at fault.
He railed against the suggestion by the victims that Dr. Thompson had shown no remorse, pointing out how when he testified during the trial he had expressed his sorrow that anyone had been injured.
In standing by the tattered defense it was as if, confronted with the actual Big Foot, Swarth continued to deny its existence. Further, citing Thompson’s previous apology showed his complete disconnect from the emotional experience of seemingly anyone who came in contact with him during the trial (indeed, his rudeness to all members of the media became a source of amusement to us). Because the context of Dr. Thompson’s apology was entirely different, the meaning, and therefore, its credibility, was entirely different as well.
Later, with regards to Dr. Thompson’s apology Early said to me, “He should have made that statement on the Fifth of July.”
When I asked him about Dr. Thompson’s unwillingness to acknowledge any altercation with him he said, “He drove me off the road and doesn’t even remember it! That says a lot about his attitude.”
Dr. Thompson said that cyclists and drivers are at a crossroads. In that, he was wrong; the tension between the two communities has been at a boil for years. Assaults happen on a daily basis; some are more veiled than others and the will of the police to investigate them is as variable as the profile of a mountain range.
It was Judge Millington’s statement that brought closure to the saga. He acknowledged cyclists’ vulnerability and declared a need for cyclists and motorists to consider their actions in sharing common motorways. He also declared the responsibility on the part of the government to provide bike lanes so that cyclists may enjoy safe passage on the nations roads.
May we hope that legislators everywhere hear Judge Millington’s words.
Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson has been found guilty of six felonies and one misdemeanor as a result of two different incidents with cyclists. Jurors in the case returned unanimous verdicts for the seven crimes after less than six hours of deliberation.
While not so speedy as to be hasty, the deliberation was short enough to convey how convincing was the prosecution’s case.
I hadn’t expected to be called to court today for the verdict; though I thought the logic of the prosecution’s case was convincing enough to assuage any and all doubts, my concern for a hung jury never hung on logic.
The atmosphere in the court was charged. Thompson didn’t walk in until moments before the jury filed in. This was the only time during the course of the trial that cyclists outnumbered Thompson supporters. Every seat in the gallery was filled and nearly a dozen people stood in the aisle behind the last row of seats.
I was less than eight feet from Thompson as the verdicts were read. Following the first count, reckless driving causing specified injury, his head slumped and he looked down at the table in front of him. He lifted his head and looked out as the second verdict, for battery with serious bodily injury was read. This time his head dropped down so that his chin was nearly touching his chest. He did not lift it for the rest of the reading of the verdicts.
I’ve been asked on a number of occasions if Thompson showed any emotion, any remorse. For the most part, he has acted aloof and calm. Unperturbed would be another great way to describe his mood before today. I’ve not seen anything anyone would call remorse or concern for the cyclists.
To the degree that I was concerned about the likelihood of a hung jury, some of this was attributable to comments I heard made in the courtroom by non-cyclists. I heard one woman, who I supposed was a neighbor of Thompson’s and a likely member of the Upper Mandeville Canyon homeowner’s association, say that Patrick Early, the first cyclist reported to have had an altercation with Thompson, “wasn’t one of those primadonnas.”
On Friday a woman seated directly behind me said, “It’s a bike rider conspiracy.” I wasn’t sure whom she was speaking about until later when an attorney following the case said she pointed at me and a cyclist next to me when she made the statement. I’m still not sure what the conspiracy was about or what led her to believe I and an airline pilot had committed felonies of our own, but rational thought wasn’t always in evidence in the gallery.
I’d overheard Thompson’s wife make some snarky—if not downright nasty—comments about cyclists in the gallery, so when I saw her in tears as we exited court, I’ll be honest and say I felt no empathy for her situation.
That Thompson was remanded to custody on the spot was really the one development I didn’t see coming. I assumed that Thompson would remain free on bail until at least sentencing if not until an appeal. Despite a nine-page motion from Peter Swarth, the judge revoked bail, but not before Deputy District Attorney Mary Stone told the court, “In terms of public safety, there isn’t a cyclist in Los Angeles who would be comfortable if he were out on the streets.”
In a court session full of surprises, the compassion Stone showed for cyclists was clearly stronger than any propriety required for professional reasons.
Once downstairs at the press conference, Stone spoke briefly and then each of the riders involved in the charges against Thompson. As Peterson was speaking, the wind blew in the unmistakable aroma of marijuana. Someone had left court only to smoke up upon hitting the parking lot. It was a shocking reminder of Thompson’s flagrant disregard for the law.
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