Cycling community urges lengthy sentence for physician convicted
In letters and e-mails, enthusiasts say that a tough sentence for Christopher Thompson would send a strong message to motorists. He will be sentenced Friday. Prosecutors have asked for 8 years.
By Jack Leonard
In more than 270 e-mails and letters filed with the court, cycling enthusiasts condemned the actions of Christopher Thompson and argued that a tough sentence would send a strong message to hostile motorists everywhere.
Though some of the writers described themselves as friends of the victims, many said they had no connection to the case. Several of the letters came from physicians who wrote they were horrified that a medical professional sworn to "do no harm" would set out to injure bike riders.
"The Dr. Thompsons out there frighten me," wrote Dr. Janna Summerall-Smith of Waresboro, Ga., "because I know that one may be out there on the road with me when I ride my bike."
The outpouring underscores how Thompson’s case has galvanized a diverse community of cyclists around the world -- from athletic road racers to environmentally-conscious commuters to recreational riders.
The letters and e-mails were filed in court by prosecutors who have asked that Thompson, 60, be sentenced today to eight years in prison. The veteran emergency room physician was jailed in November immediately after jurors found him guilty of mayhem, assault with a deadly weapon -- his car -- and other charges.
Many of those who sent messages about the case described how vulnerable they felt on two wheels when motorists get too close. Some recounted serious accidents caused by careless or sometimes vindictive drivers and complained that authorities rarely take such episodes seriously.
"Here in the U.K., the cycling community has a saying that, ’If you want to harm or kill someone, a motor vehicle is the weapon of choice,’ " wrote Tony Raven, of Cambridge, England.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Mary Hanlon Stone said the letters show that many cyclists feel like second-class citizens.
"It is time that motorists learn that they must share the road with people on bicycles and that the courts will view assaults on cyclists by motorists as seriously as other assaults with deadly weapons," she wrote in court papers.
The July 4, 2008, crash highlighted simmering tensions between cyclists and motorists, particularly on Mandeville Canyon Road, the winding five-mile residential street where the crash took place.
Thompson testified that he and other local Mandeville Canyon residents were upset at how some cyclists ignored stop signs or rode alongside each other on the narrow street.
On the day of the crash, Thompson said he was driving to work when several cyclists swore at him and flipped him off as he called on them to ride single file. He said he stopped to take a photo to identify the riders and never intended to hurt anyone.
But a police officer told jurors that shortly after the crash Thompson said he slammed on his brakes in front of the riders to "teach them a lesson."
One cyclist was flung face-first into the rear window of Thompson’s red Infiniti, breaking his front teeth and nose and cutting his face. The other cyclist slammed into the sidewalk and suffered a separated shoulder.
During the trial, prosecutors cited two prior incidents in which Thompson was accused of confronting cyclists along Mandeville Canyon Road and braking suddenly in front of them. None of those cyclists were hurt.
Thompson’s attorney, Peter Swarth, argued in court papers that his client deserved probation, not prison.
Any sentence, he wrote, should take into account the years of Thompson’s dedication to healing the sick, including more than three decades serving the "underprivileged community of Montebello" at Beverly Hospital.
Thompson has served two months in jail, is near financial ruin and his medical license will probably be revoked if he’s convicted, Swarth wrote. Thompson’s California medical license was suspended last month.
Swarth said Thompson also suffers from coronary artery disease and that incarceration could prove fatal. Since the crash, he has suffered from chronic post traumatic stress disorder that includes disturbed dreams and sleep disorder among other symptoms, according to a report by a clinical psychologist hired by the defense.
Thompson, his lawyer wrote, has suffered public humiliation since news of the case broke and received "a deluge of threats and intimidation," prompting the doctor and his wife to move out of state several months after the incident.
In seeking probation, the defense attorney pointed to other cases in which defendants avoided prison for more serious crimes. Among them: Soon Ja Du, a Korean-born grocer, who was given probation in 1991 after she was convicted of manslaughter for the fatal shooting of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old African American.
Du’s sentence provoked storms of protest as well as an unsuccessful attempt to unseat the judge who sentenced her. The sentence was also blamed for inflaming already deep tensions between Korean shopkeepers and black residents of South Los Angeles in the months before the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
In his plea for leniency, Thompson’s lawyer attached more than 160 letters from friends and supporters of the doctor, including physicians and other health workers who spoke glowingly about Thompson’s reputation.
"He is a very wise man and caring physician," wrote Dr. Robert Padgett, who described himself as an avid cyclist.
Michael Oana, an X-ray technologist at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, said he has known Thompson for many years.
"Dr. Thompson is not a criminal," Oana wrote. "He acted without thinking. . . . He has paid dearly for his mistake."