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The standard of proof in criminal cases is so high, if the defense can make their case to the jury that the defendant has a substantial enough reputation for peacefulness, that alone can be enough for reasonable doubt.
The morning after Vandeman’s testimony, three character witnesses testified that he is not an angry, vindictive or violent person.
The first was his wife, to whom Vandeman has been married 30 years. She testified that while they have gotten into arguments, their arguing style is to keep talking until they have some common understanding. She’s raised her voice in the past, he never has.
She said he’s very soft spoken, nature loving, always helping people, contributing time and money to whatever cause he believes in. His mind is often somewhere else than the present moment, but “he really cares,” she said. “He really cares what’s going on in society.”
Cook asked if she wanted to come and testify today.
“No, I’ve never done anything like this before and I’m very nervous,” she said. Also, she was scared to face the mountain bikers in the court room.
Cabanero’s cross examination was one question. “Mrs. Vandeman, you’ve been married to your husband for 30 years,” he said. “I assume it’s safe to say that you love him very much?”
One of Vandeman’s coworkers was next, with whom he chats regularly about work things. “Supplies, payroll, vacations,” she said. “Whatever comes into his mind.”
Asked about his character, she said, “Mike is an endearing soul. He’s caring, a good corporate citizen, a great employee.” He’s very quiet at the office, she said, but there haven’t been any conflicts. At lunch he sits with his more intelligent colleagues and they share ideas and what they’re working on. He has a picture of St. Francis of Assisi—friendly to animals, lover of nature—representing him in their Instant Messaging program and she thinks that’s a pretty accurate characterization.
After the arrest, she received a voicemail from Vandeman saying that he’d been incarcerated, but a series of objections kept her from saying what she’d heard in that message.
The final character witness was Vandeman’s friend and neighbor, who met him seven years ago when Vandeman asked if he could graft a branch from her persimmon tree onto one of the trees in his yard.
“We started talking about trees and gardens and it went on and on and on,” she said. While she was recovering from an injury he stopped by every morning to see if she needed any help, since little things like switching the laundry had become difficult.
To characterize Vandeman, she said he was helpful and concerned, “but truly and thoughtfully concerned” and also a very private person. She said he was very sympathetic, and empathetic, which it’s much harder to be, and amusing, curious and fun to talk to.
Maybe he’s a little innocent and naive about life, she said, but he’s a loyal friend and he always shows up and works hard, whether it’s in his own back yard or when he travels to Japan to stay with his wife’s family. While there, he works the fields and does whatever they need to have done.
He has a calm personality, is not excitable and always thinks the good in everything.
Nothing she’s heard about the charges or any of the conversations the two of them have had about mountain biking changed her opinion.
The final witness of the morning was not technically a character witness, but rather a professor at Berkeley who happened upon a dazed and bleeding Vandeman one day in 2007 after a run-in with a mountain biker.
The two men knew each other from the trail, they’d stop and chat when their paths crossed.
“He’s always reading a book,” he said. “I’m amazed he can go up and down those trails and his concentration is so secure.”
Cook asked if he remembered finding Vandeman on the trail. “Yes,” he said. “It’s very vivid because it was quite terrible.”
He said Vandeman’s leg was bleeding, that he could see the blood because Vandeman was wearing shorts.
“He seemed a bit upset, for Mike. Mike is a very cool person.”
Cook asked if Vandeman had told him what happened.
Cook rephrased the question and Cabanero objected again that the answer was non responsive.
Cook asked another question trying to get the witness to describe the event and he started to say that the biker went up the trail, turned around and came back and hit Vandeman, but he stopped mid sentence and pointed at Cabanero.
“You’re going to object,” he said, raising his eyebrows and tilting his head as if to challenge. “Go ahead…”
By this point everyone was chuckling with the feisty witness.
“You’re catching on, you must be a professor,” the judge said.
He finished the story uninterrupted.