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.
The following are the statements made in court by Ron Peterson, Dr. Thompson and Judge Millington. Each is profound for the insight it brings to bear on the case.—Padraig
I’d like to thank the court for the opportunity to speak this morning. These past 18 months have been difficult to say the least. Being the victim of multiple felonies is not a pleasant experience, one which is made even more difficult by the constant court date postponements, stress of being cross-examined, recounting the event again and again, then finally: the constant worry that in the end the truth will not be heard and justice will not be served. To my great relief the truth has been heard and Dr. Thompson has been found guilty on all counts. Now the question finally arises ‘Will justice be served?’
Your Honor you are in the position of having to decide what exactly justice is in this case. Not an easy task I’m sure.
In order for you to make an informed decision you need to know just how Dr. Thompson’s actions that 4th of July have affected us. The trauma to me, both mental and physical has been extensive, in fact much more extensive than I feel comfortable sharing in this venue. But Your Honor, I have to share, because you have to know.
As far as physical injuries go I don’t need to go into detail. Through the testimony of my physicians you have heard what Dr. Thompson did to me. My nose was nearly torn from my face, my front two teeth were broken in half, and I suffered multiple facial lacerations. You’ve also seen the pictures. They speak for themselves.
Then, of course, there are the scars. Let’s be honest, they seem relatively minor. I’ve had plastic surgery, and my face cleaned up fine due to the skill of my surgeons. But your honor, the scars are still there as reminders of the incident. I see them every day. I see them every time I look in a mirror, every time I shave or wash my hands. Now I’m an active guy; I have plenty of scars. Scars on my arms, scars on my legs. These are “active scars” a kind of proof that I have lived my life and enjoyed doing so. They are almost badges of honor. The scars on my face are not that kind of scar. The scars on my face remind me of the pain and trauma I went through because Dr. Thompson didn’t like cyclists riding on “his” road.
Mentally, this incident has been stressful as well. That Fourth of July, or after that 4th of July I was having a hard time coping with what had happened. I had difficulty sleeping, and when I did I was plagued by recurring nightmares. They were of brake lights, and slamming. When awake, despite myself I was constantly replaying the event again and again. Now, I’ve crashed before, and never had nightmares due to these accidents. I have nightmares because this pain was caused by an intentional act. That fact, in addition to the incident’s violent nature was extremely hard to deal with. Eventually I sought help from a psychologist and was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I was in therapy for a year, and still go back every month or so.
I hope you now have a better understanding as to what I have gone through. Christian as well, though he’s not here to say anything.
So the next question is, what would constitute “Justice”? I know some of the options being considered are probation or as the DA has suggested, 8 years of prison.
It is my firm belief that the crimes Dr. Thompson has been found guilty of must be severely punished.
Your Honor I understand you are taking many variables into consideration when deciding Dr. Thompson’s sentence. Of course you are considering that this is the first felony—actually series of felonies—Dr. Thompson has ever been found guilty of. However my run in with the doctor. was not the first time he attempted to injure a cyclist, nor the second, but the third.
I also understand you will also be taking into consideration Dr. Thompson’s professional history. He’s been practicing emergency room medicine for 30 years. I believe Dr. Thompson’s medical training and experience make these crimes all the more heinous. Very few people have a greater understanding of just what happens to someone when they strike a solid object at 30 mph. Horrible injuries occur, including severe head trauma, broken bones, even death. Over the last 30 years Dr. Thompson has seen them all. Yet he still sent Christian and me to the emergency room.
This kind of violent behavior is not acceptable. In fact, preventing this kind of behavior is exactly why we have a justice system in the first place. Arguably the main reason we have punishment for crimes is to deter unacceptable behavior. If Dr. Thompson is not punished for his crimes, the message will be sent that it is okay to intentionally harm another person, merely because you don’t like what they said, that they dressed differently, or they slowed you down on ‘your’ street.
Your honor, thank you for the opportunity to speak here this morning. I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I’ve been through, so please seriously consider what I’ve said when deciding Dr. Thompson’s sentence.
First of all, pardon me for reading. I needed to jot this down. Before I try this I would like to say Your Honor that I’m blessed, I’m very blessed by having an extraordinary family, friends and neighbors who are here to support me, both here in the court room as well many outside employers.
That’s not what I wanted to say. I wanted to address personally and directly Mr. Stoehr and Mr. Peterson. I violated the most sacred rules of medicine and also in my personal life, and that is to do no harm. That should not only govern our profession but me and us all as beings, human beings. I did violate it.
I have been haunted by nightmares where I see Mr. Peterson, it’s more not seeing you sir, it’s hearing you go through the windshield. Five to seven times a week, and I, too, sir, have been in therapy since that happened.
In my 32 years of practicing in the emergency department I have had the privilege, I mean privilege, excuse me [voice breaking], to treat and counsel many patients with injuries and am painfully aware of not only the physical trauma but the mental trauma as well. And I know that the physical injuries heal as well as mental ones but that the recovery can be quite extensive and lifelong.
I only hope and pray that the recovery from the mental anguish my actions have created is as short as possible for you and your families, because I also this affects other people, not just you. And I apologize to your family as well. The physical and mental scars are my fault.
I think Mr. Watson said I’ve not been remorseful or accepted responsibility. I do. And I pray that the impact on a daily basis is lessened. I would like to apologize again deeply and profoundly from the bottom of my heart. For you and your family as well as for mine and myself, this entire sequence of horrible events seems to grow and grow during the past 18 months, spinning out of control in the public arena being dragged, all of us dragged into it many times, looking through some of the chronicle stories and many more innocent people have been affected, I think.
And to that end I would like to address the cycling community as a whole and Mandeville Canyon in specific residents, as well as residents as a whole in Los Angeles. I can only hope and wonder that if we’d each walked a mile in each other’s shoes and communicated how whether all sides would have had a more open and productive dialog and all parties would have reaped the benefits of that dialog.
Both sides—the cyclists as well as the community—are at a crossroads. The bible teaches us that we have two choices: revenge and retaliation, or resolution and reconciliation. If my incident shows us anything its that confrontation only leads to escalation of hostility and not resolution, and that’s on both sides. I strongly urge both parties to embrace resolution through reconciliation. You cannot fix the problem if you are consumed with fixing the blame. Both sides can begin by agreeing on common goals and common understanding an example is that both parties surely would agree that safety is their primary concern.
From the beginning, I believe that both residents and cyclists can resolve their differences to the benefit of everyone and I hope and pray that this happens as soon as possible. You can honestly disagree without being disagreeable.
In closing, I would like to say from the bottom of my heart that I am again sorry and to Mr. Watson and to Mr. Crosby as well if I offended you and I scared you, you scared me back as well as Mr. Fitts and I think that we both could use a little talk, a little dialog. To Mr. Early I apologize for the perceived incident, again I was not there, I am sorry to say, but I had nothing to do with that incident.
I’m sorry there’s this notion I’m not remorseful and have not been apologetic, there’s nothing I can say that’s going to change your mind, I suspect, but believe me from the bottom of my heart, I’ve lived my entire life never intentionally hurting or wanting to hurt anyone in my life, including you. I’ve spent 33 years trying to help people, not hurt them. And I pray that I have that opportunity again. I wish you all long life and good health more importantly [voice breaking] and may God bless you and your families. Thank you your honor [through tears].
The first thing I want to state is that this case illustrates to me the incredible tension between cyclists and motorists on Los Angeles streets, and honestly should be a wake up call to everyone. Government must become aware of the dangerous conditions existing on our city streets and the threat of injury to cyclists and should provide safe and accessible bike lanes to cyclists.
Cyclists and motorists should be respectful of each others rights to use the common roadways for all.
With that said, the court finds circumstances in aggravation as follows: the court does agree with people that the victims were particularly vulnerable in this matter. They were riding bicycles, where the defendant was in a motor vehicle and therefore the court finds them particularly vulnerable.
The court is also concerned with the lack of remorse, I did hear, I did hear the statements of the defendant today, but throughout the probation report and other statements continues to maintain that he was going to take pictures of the cyclists in this matter and the jury obviously didn’t buy that story.
The court also recalls the testimony on the 911 call that the defendant specifically told Mr. Stoehr after he was thrown over the vehicle to ‘get his bike off the road.’ The defendant also stated on that same call when Mr. Peterson was seriously injured, bleeding profusely, the defendant said, ‘they will claim they were really hurt.’ The court is also aware of the statement to the officer that he did this, ‘to teach the cyclists a lesson.’
The court also read and considered the report submitted by the defense by Dr. Whiting, and I think I also heard it in the testimony of the defendant about when he was 12 years old his best friend’s brother was run over by a car while riding his bike and that was traumatic for the defendant, yet he goes about and does something like this.
Circumstances in mitigation include the defendant did actually call 911 and remain at the scene; I don’t know if he did that—remain at the scene—because Mr. Stoehr was laying on the vehicle or he did that of his own volition, but he did call 911 to at least seek aid for the two victims in this case. He is 60 years old with a minimal prior record, just one 1977 reckless driving case.