A reporter’s notebook: Sentencing Dr. Thompson
Christopher Thomas Thompson, the Los Angeles-area emergency room doctor convicted of assaulting two cyclists with his car in 2008, was sentenced to five years in prison on Friday. Reporter Patrick Brady, who covered Thompson’s trial for VeloNews, was in the courtroom for a long-anticipated sentencing hearing. – Editor.
It was a gaunt and emotional Christopher Thompson who was led into the courtroom of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Scott T. Millington, on Friday, shackled and wearing blue prison scrubs. Thompson appeared to have lost weight since he was remanded to Los Angeles County jail upon his conviction on a misdemeanor and six felony charges in November.
The felony charges stemmed from a July 4, 2008, incident in which Thompson abruptly stopped his car in front of two riders – Ron Peterson and Christian Stoehr – descending Mandeville Canyon road, near Los Angeles. Thompson was also convicted of a misdemeanor charge from a similar incident that occurred months earlier, but did not result in injuries to riders Patrick Watson and Josh Crosby.
With the courtroom filled to capacity, reporters were seated in the jury box. The majority of the audience was made up of Thompson’s friends and family. Another two dozen stood outside. The mood in the court was tense.
Millington’s first order of business was to consider defense attorney Peter Swarth’s motion for a new trial. Swarth cited what he characterized as prosecutorial misconduct and several improper decisions by the judge as justification for Thompson’s conviction to be overturned. Millington, however, noted that he had already addressed Swarth’s objections during trial and rejected the motion.
Underscoring the attention the case has received, Millington noted he had received more than 270 letters and e-mails from cyclists from California and around the world. The judge, however, added that he couldn’t — and didn’t — consider them in determining a fair sentence for Thompson.
While Millington declined to weigh public input in reaching a determination, the sentencing hearing does allow for victims, the defendant and others to testify ahead of the court’s final decision.
Testimony from three victims
Three of the four riders involved in the two incidents chose to attend Friday’s hearing and offer testimony. The fourth, Stoehr, did not.
Forced off the road in March of 2008, Watson took the stand and was clearly still angry about the encounter and the later, more violent attack in July.
“Mr. Thompson tried to kill us,” he said, “and actions have consequences.”
Watson also pointed out that since the attack on July 4, 2008, Thompson “never showed remorse. Clearly, he thought he was above the law. I urge the court to look beyond his excuses.”
Watson’s riding partner, Crosby, echoed those sentiments.
“Simply put, this was not an accident,” Crosby said. “It was a deliberate action. Dr. Thompson has never acknowledged any remorse or taken responsibility for his actions. Dr. Thompson, your actions led to this day; you put us here.”
“I’m sorry for all the cyclists involved in this, but mostly I’m sorry for you, Dr. Thompson,” Crosby said. “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.”
But it was Peterson, the most severely injured of the four riders, who offered the most compelling testimony about the impact the encounter had on his life.
“These past 18 months have been difficult, to say the least,” he told the court. “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, and 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?”
Directly addressing his injuries, Peterson — whose nose was nearly severed when he crashed into the rear window of Thompson’s car — said that he is forced to relive the moment every day of his life.
“I’ve had plastic surgery and my face cleaned up fine due to the skill of my surgeons,” he said. “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.”
Peterson went on to recount how the encounter has affected his life in ways that transcended his well-documented injuries.
“Mentally, this incident has been stressful as well,” he said. “That Fourth of July, or after that … 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.”
Peterson urged the judge to consider Thompson’s violation of his own ethical principles when weighing an appropriate sentence.
“I also understand you will also be taking into consideration Dr. Thompson’s professional history,” Peterson said. “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.”
“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.”
In defense of Thompson
Swarth then offered testimony from three witnesses who urged the court to exercise compassion when considering a sentence: C. Thomas Thompson, the defendant’s father; Tom Freeman, president of the Upper Mandeville Canyon Homeowners’ Association; and Lillian Ferguson, an RN who worked with Thompson for more than 16 years.
Thompson’s father said it was important for the court to consider his son’s role as an emergency medicine educator and his contributions to the city of Los Angeles as a physician.
The older Thompson also said that the court should seriously consider his son’s health when handing down a sentence. Thompson said his son suffers from a 50 percent obstruction of his coronary artery, a condition often referred to as a “widow-maker.”
“Widow-makers are very serious business,” the elder Thompson said. “He has a 50-percent obstruction he’s’ also hypertensive, he has hyperlipidemia … or increased cholesterol. If you add those two things to a 50-percent obstruction, you’re looking at a man of 60 years of age in prison under stress that … really doesn’t have a happy chance for survival in that kind of situation.”
Finally, Thompson urged the court to consider how much his son has already suffered since that July 4th encounter.
“Chris Thompson left Los Angeles humiliated,” he said. “He was under almost constant harassment and threat, not just to him but to his wife, his colleagues, his professional people, because the threats were numerous, they were recorded; I’ve heard some of them. And he came to Tulsa, Oklahoma. One of the great humiliations of his life was to have to move in with his father and mother.
That was not an easy time, the elder Thompson said.
“We talked about remorse; when you talk about remorse almost every day, I talked with Chris Thompson; I talked not just remorse, unbelievability of how he could have caused harm to another human being. So when we talk remorse and responsibility, let me assure you, that every day this was repeated to me, many times with tears.”
Thompson urged the court to consider that his son’s life has to be defined by more than that single moment.
“Look at his whole life story. It’s been shattered. In a sense, in an unthinking moment, in a moment, the blink of an eye, his whole life has come crashing down around him, around his wife, around his family, to the point that I think, ‘What more punishment could be given?’”
Freeman, the head of the local homeowners’ group, said that Thompson had always been an upstanding member of the community, pointing to Thompson’s role in writing articles for the association newsletter about snake bites, advising the homeowner’s association not to purchase defibrillation kits for homeowners who suffer coronary events.
Freeman also noted that the association had worked with local cycling groups to address each side’s concerns about the use of the “long and steep incline of Mandeville Canyon and the limitations of Mandeville Canyon Road, which is a narrow, winding, pot-holed road, which has no sidewalks.”
“We in the canyon are working to reduce the hostilities and educate the community just as bicycle groups are doing,” Freeman said, “but we are concerned that Chris has now become a symbol and a target of escalating anger and hostility, not just locally, but nationwide.”
“We know Chris to be a kind, generous and caring man and neighbor and we urge you to consider that and sentence Chris to the minimum term available under the law.”
Ferguson, who worked as a nurse with Thompson, told of the doctor’s relationship with her daughter since she was a young girl, teaching her piano in his home. When her daughter was killed in an auto accident, at the age of 18, Ferguson said that Thompson and another colleague paid for the funeral, adding that in the 14 years since Thompson has had fresh flowers placed on the daughter’s grave every week.
“It pains me so much to hear … him portray(ed) as a monster,” she said.
Thompson takes the stand
Finally, Swarth called Thompson to the stand. He was required to be shackled to his chair throughout his testimony.
“I wanted to address personally and directly Mr. Stoehr and Mr. Peterson,” Thompson said, looking at the cyclists in the courtroom. “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.”
Thompson said that he was, despite the riders’ testimony, truly remorseful for the encounter.
“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.”
Thomson acknowledged that he has become something of a symbol in the continuing tensions between cyclists and drivers.
“Both sides — the cyclists as well as the community — are at a crossroads,” he said. “The Bible teaches us that we have two choices: revenge and retaliation, or resolution and reconciliation. If my incident shows us anything it’s 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.”
Specifically addressing Watson and Crosby, Thompson appeared somewhat less contrite.
“If I offended you and I scared you, you scared me back as well as Mr. Fitts (the passenger in the car at the time of the incident) and I think that we both could use a little talk, a little dialog,” he said.
With testimony from both sides complete, Millington offered a brief statement before reading his verdict.
“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 wakeup call to everyone,” he said. “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.”
After sentencing Thompson to five years in California state prison, Millington issued a lifetime revocation of the defendant’s drivers license and ordered him to pay restitution to the victims as well.
Outside court, Peterson was asked if he was satisfied with the outcome of the hearing.
“There’s no happiness involved,” he said. “No good comes of this. So you ask if there’s satisfaction: Not really. It’s relief that justice was served but there’s no winner no net gain from this. Everybody involved has lost. It’s sad, across the board. The only good that can come of this is if drivers and cyclists look at this as a wakeup call and respect each other; that’s the one minute bit of good.”