The defense strategy is starting to come in focus.
Based on his cross examination, Peter Swarth, attorney for Dr. Christopher Thompson, intends to paint a picture of a canyon plagued by angry, out of control cyclists. And portray the Good Doctor as their unfortunate, and innocent, victim — three times, no less.
That message is reinforced by the noticeable presence of two large bodyguards in the courtroom, suggesting that Thompson is the one who is in danger from cyclists, rather than the other way around.
As both the Times and VeloNews reported, testimony began with Christian Stoehr, one of the two cyclists seriously injured on the 4th of July last year when the Good Doctor pulled in front of them and slammed on his brakes.
Stoehr described how he hit the back of Thompson’s car when the doctor cut in front of them and slammed on his brakes, rolling over the top of the car and falling into the street. But when he had trouble explaining exactly how that occurred, Swarth suggested that maybe he simply fell over.
You know, ‘cause experienced cyclists do that a lot.
According to cyclist/attorney DJwheels, the other rider, Ron Peterson, went into more detail, describing how they had passed a slower rider shortly before they heard a car approach from behind. When Stoehr called out “Car back!,” Peterson responded by taking single file position in front.
The driver, later identified as a Thompson, yelled out “Ride single file;” Peterson responded with “Fuck you!” He said Thompson then cut over and braked to a stop about five feet in front of them. Because of their downhill speed, a collision was unavoidable; after striking the car, Peterson flew forward into the car’s rear windshield.
“My face did that,” he said, pointing to a large hole in the glass in a photo of the scene. “And that’s my blood.”
Under cross examination, Peterson admitted that after extricating himself from the glass, he told Thompson to “Get the fuck away from me,” adding “I’m going to fuck you up!”
“I said it,” Peterson admitted. “I’m not proud.”
That exchange is important, both because it points to the anger Swarth suggests, as well as supporting the defense claim that Thompson never refused to help the cyclists, as has been reported, but rather, it was the cyclists who refused his aid.
Swarth continued to pressure Peterson, accusing him of anger before the collision, and still being furious and desperate for revenge. Peterson calmly insisted that he was angry at first, “but it’s been awhile.” He continued by saying “I just want justice. That’s why I’m here.”
Deputy District Attorney Mary Stone then called LAPD Traffic Accident Investigator Robert Rodriguez.
Rodriguez testified that shortly after arriving, he took a statement from the Good Doctor, who said the cyclists were riding “three abreast,” blocking the roadway. VeloNews quotes him as saying “They flipped me off. I stopped in front of them. I wanted to teach them a lesson. I’m tired of them.”
Rodriguez, a veteran officer and former Marine, said that meant this needed to be investigated as an assault with a deadly weapon, rather than a traffic accident. He immediately stopped his investigation and called for backup.
While he waited for help to arrive, Rodriguez took measurements of the crime scene — including one showing the roadway was 20 feet wide at that point.
Again, this could prove important, since standard lane width in California is 12 feet; section 21202 of the California Vehicle Code allows cyclists to take the lane if it’s “too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane.” A substandard lane width would justify taking a position within the lane, rather than hugging the curb to the right.
Stone played a recording of Thompson speaking with the 911 operator. The court could clearly hear him tell the injured cyclists to get their bikes out of the road; he told the operator they weren’t seriously injured, “But they’ll tell you that.”
Swarth suggested that to an ER doctor such as Thompson, “serious” means something different than it does to a layman — setting up an argument to combat the doctor’s lack of remorse. However, considering that he hadn’t examined either victim, it may be hard to support a medical determination.
The next witness was another Mandeville resident, Dr. Bruce Rogen, who was returning home with his family when they came upon the crime scene. He was the first person to offer medical care to the cyclists, saying it was “primitive” due to the lack of medical equipment. Peterson was still bleeding profusely, so he took off his own shirt to use as a bandage to staunch the bleeding.
It was at about that point when the trial paused because one of the jurors felt faint — attributing it to her squeamishness around blood. Somehow, the descriptions of blood got to her, even though the previous day’s bloody photos hadn’t.
When testimony continued, Swarth pressed Rogen on whether Thompson had offered assistance. After repeated questioning, Rogen recalled Thompson saying the cyclists had refused his help; however, he did not remember Thompson attempting to assist him or offer advice.
Geoffrey Keyes, M.D. took the stand next. President of both the L.A. and California Society of Plastic Surgeons, he described the surgery he performed on Peterson, citing significant internal and external injuries to the nose, which required both nasal and septal reconstruction.
The day’s final witness was Patrick Watson of Team Helens, who recalled a similar experience in March, 2008, with a car and license plate number matching that of the Good Doctor’s.
According to Watson, Thompson ran him off the road, forcing him to bunny hop over a curb onto the lawn of a house. His riding partner, Josh Crosby, was forced onto the opposite side of the road; Crosby responded by yelling at Thompson and striking the side of his car.
Meanwhile, Watson hopped back onto the roadway, finding himself one again in front of Thompson’s car; the car charged towards him — forcing him to bunny hop onto the yard once again — before swerving off and driving away.
Watson said Crosby’s punch may have left a dent in Thompson’s Lexus, which they thought could be used as evidence in a hit-and-run charge. Swarth jumped on that, accusing Watson of threatening to file a false police report, since it was Crosby who struck Thompson’s car, rather than the other way around. However, he was forced to back down when Watson said that the police had told him that.
Then again, Swarth was also forced to back down when Judge Scott Millington sternly reprimanded him for repeatedly interrupting witnesses, as well as the judge himself.
According to VeloNews, there was a third, eerily similar incident in Mandeville Canyon that preceded the other two. In the winter of 2008, Patrick Early narrowly escaped injury when a car resembling Thompson’s buzzed his bike and the driver yelled “Get off the road!” Like the riders in this case, he responded by yelling back “Fuck you!,” only to have the driver cut in front of him and slam on the brakes; fortunately, he was riding uphill, so he was able to stop in time to avoid a collision.
Watson’s testimony continues today, followed by Josh Crosby and additional police witnesses; Friday’s witness list includes medical experts, as well as possible testimony from an expert witness about information downloaded from Watson’s Garmin.
“I hope Crosby is composed,” DJwheels said, “because it’s clear that Swarth is going to go after him.”
Defense testimony may begin on Friday or Monday, though Swarth has expressed concern about the availability of witnesses on the first part of the week. Closing arguments are expected on or about October 28.
I’ve done my best to confirm all the names in this story; however, if I have misspelled or gotten anyone’s name or title wrong, let me know and I will be happy to correct it. For more information, see the Times coverage of opening testimony, and the excellent coverage from VeloNews, here and here, as well as today’s story on Streetsblog L.A.