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.
I love a good tragedy. When it comes to Shakespeare, give me Hamlet, Macbeth or King Lear. In movies, I prefer flawed heroes and fallen angels. If I cheer at the death of the villain, then I never connected with the character and that means he could only have been two-dimensional, and we know what two-dimensional pictures of bad guys are used for: target practice.
Similarly, I’m not big on god-like figures. As a kid, I was a bit of a smart-ass (not saying that has changed) and once asked in Sunday school why we were busy trying to emulate perfection if we, as man, were doomed to imperfection. I didn’t quite articulate the whole of my thought, which was, ‘If I can see flaws in Jesus, be they moments of doubt or indecision or even waves of fear, then I can identify more easily with him and thus will be inspired to at least try to follow in his footsteps.’ I was filled with such doubt on a daily basis and I simply couldn’t identify with his confidence of mission. ‘What was that like?’ I wondered.
I have received a lot of praise for my work covering the trial of Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson. I’m grateful for every note I have either received here or that has been sent to VeloNews. Nothing could please me more than to know that my effort to be fair and unbiased in my reporting resonated with readers.
The story of this case is obviously tragic in broad strokes, but I think it is easy to miss the more human elements that make us identify with each of the people involved and feel for the ways their lives have changed.
In Christian Stoehr’s case, he endured a four and a half hour surgery to repair his shoulder. He spent the vast majority of his settlement on his physical therapy. With the little money left over he built a pizza oven. He’s guaranteed arthritis in that shoulder and will never be able to carry the bigger cameras that were once a prominent part of his professional life. Once a fixture of my training rides, I rarely see him anymore.
As easygoing as Ron Peterson is, he’s an intensely competitive guy. Prior to Thompson’s assault, Ron was racing as a Cat. 1 and had the ability to win on any course; he could drop you going up, down or in a sprint. As a coach, he had helped novice riders become good racers and some very good racers become legendary. Today, he’s on the local rides occasionally … at best. His sense of justice might get a boost someday; he has filed a civil suit against Thompson and with the help of a forensic accountant, they might find some compensation for his suffering. Nothing will really make up for the missed days on the bike either of these guys has experienced, though.
But here’s what none of us really want to think about: Subtract about three minutes from Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson’s life and chances are none of us would ever have heard his name. His given name is largely irrelevant to us judging from the names he’s been called on blogs, web sites and in e-mails.
Monster is the clear winner, with a bullet and heading up the charts fast.
Certainly the act he committed is monstrous, but does that make him a monster? I have problems with this sort of thinking for a few reasons. First, one of the great fallacies of irrational thinking is believing that if you do something bad, you are bad. Going to Catholic schools as a kid, I got that message a lot, thankyouverymuch.
Second, once we reduce a guy to a cardboard cutout, painting him as a villain, we remove him from humanity and deny that he had anything in common with us. Seeing someone as all bad is called splitting; it is a defense mechanism that gives us a chance to devalue another person. It’s convenient and neat, and saves us the onerous task of recognizing how his temper might be a first cousin to our own tempers.
I don’t know Dr. Thompson and don’t want to know him. But in working on my coverage about this “incident,” I learned a thing or two about him. He’s a musician. Present tense. Judging from a personal page that used to be on the Touch Medix web site, he’s a big wine nut; there were a few photos of him holding a glass full of what looked to be Cabernet. He lived on Mandeville Canyon; if you’ve ever been up the canyon, then you know anyone who chooses to live there has some clue about the good life. He’s an entrepreneur; Touch Medix is a company he launched with a friend to respond to a need they perceived in hospital medical records. He does, in fact, have a heart; he paid for the funeral of the daughter of an ex-girlfriend and paid for flowers to be on her grave every month.
He’s also a guy who lied to the court about his motivation for stopping in front of Ron and Christian. He lied under oath to a judge and a jury. He’s a physician who had to get through a fair amount of physics in college who claimed he wanted to get a photo of the cyclists as they passed—a ridiculous suggestion that seemingly anyone with half a brain would have understood as essentially impossible given his claimed distance ahead of them and the speed they were moving. And he expected us to believe him.
We don’t know what his sentence will be, but the loss of his medical license is virtually assured. I won’t pretend to know what the appropriate punishment is for his actions, but the loss of his medical license seems appropriate.
But is he a monster? Let me ask the question a different way. Is he a villain? Is he the black-hat-wearing, cardboard-cutout, Darth Vader of car drivers?
Hopefully, Dr. Thompson will do some soul searching and look back on the choice he made on July 4, 2008, as the low point in his judgment, though it’s possible he’ll deflect and decide his worst choice wasn’t hitting the brakes but hiring Peter Swarth to represent him. These things happen. History knows the truth: It’s unlikely Thompson will ever make a poorer choice than when he hit the brakes that morning on Mandeville Canyon. Should we sum up the whole of his identity in a single choice?
Perhaps it is fair to wonder if his identity should be different from his station in life post-verdict. Some time down the road, he’ll be out of prison and an employee of a medical records software company, a former doctor and convicted felon.
Photo: Chris Roberts
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.