A doctor convicted of assaulting two cyclists in Brentwood by driving in front of them and slamming on his brakes was sentenced today to five years in prison, ending a case a judge described as a wake-up call about tensions between cyclists and motorists on Los Angeles’ streets.
Wearing dark blue jail scrubs, Christopher Thompson wept after offering a tearful apology to the injured riders. He also urged a peaceful resolution to conflicts between cyclists and residents of the upscale residential street where the crash took place.
But Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Scott T. Millington expressed doubts about the physician’s remorse and found that the victims were particularly vulnerable because they were on bicycles. In an unusual move, the judge called on cyclists and drivers to respect each other and said local government should add more lanes specifically assigned to cyclists to improve their safety.
“Government must become aware of the dangerous conditions existing on our city streets and the threat of injury to cyclists,” Millington told a courtroom packed with cyclists as well as friends and supporters of Thompson at the Airport Courthouse.
The judge’s words provide ammunition for a burgeoning movement that has sought to improve transportation conditions for Los Angeles’ swelling ranks of cyclists, many of whom have long felt like second-class citizens in a city in love with its cars.
The July 4, 2008, crash drew intense interest from cyclists nationwide. More than 270 cyclists wrote letters and e-mails urging a long prison sentence. But Millington said he did not consider the correspondence, saying it would have been inappropriate to do so.
The case highlighted tensions along Mandeville Canyon Road, a winding five-mile residential street that has become a popular route for cyclists.
Thompson, 60, read a statement that at times echoed the concerns of the judge, saying cyclists and canyon residents were at a crossroads. Citing the Bible’s call for reconciliation, he strongly urged both sides to resolve their differences.
“If my incident shows us anything, it’s that confrontation leads only to escalation of hostility and not resolution,” he said. “You cannot fix the problem if you are consumed with affixing the blame.”
Thompson, a former emergency room physician, testified during his trial last year that he and other Mandeville Canyon residents were upset that some cyclists rode dangerously and acted disrespectfully toward residents.
On the day of the crash, Thompson said, he was driving down the road on his way 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 his car to take a photo to identify the riders and never intended to hurt anyone.
But the cyclists said the doctor was acting aggressively from the start. They said he honked loudly from behind and passed by dangerously close as they moved to ride single file before he pulled in front and braked hard.
A police officer told jurors that Thompson said shortly after the crash that he slammed on his brakes in front of the riders to “teach them a lesson.”
One cyclist, Ron Peterson, 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, Christian Stoehr, slammed into the sidewalk and suffered a separated shoulder.
Thompson was convicted of mayhem, assault with a deadly weapon -- his car -- and other serious charges. Jurors also found him guilty of reckless driving in an earlier incident in which prosecutors said he tried to hurt two other cyclists. He faced a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Millington rejected pleas from Thompson’s supporters, who asked that the doctor be released on probation. As Thompson wiped away tears, his father, a retired surgeon, told the court that his son was influential in improving trauma care throughout the county and was truly sorry.
But Millington quoted from a 911 call that Thompson made after the crash in which he told an emergency operator that the cyclists were not seriously injured but would claim they were. A recording of the call captured the doctor telling one of the injured cyclists, “Get your bike out of the road, why don’t you?”
The judge said Thompson has continued to insist that he stopped his car to take a photo of the cyclists.
“The jury obviously didn’t buy that story,” Millington said.