- Hide menu
The trial covered a lot of ground today. Jury selection ended, the prosecution and defense presented their opening arguments and the court heard from James Lanham, the only victim with first hand knowledge of the business end of Vandeman’s handsaw.
There were few surprises during jury selection, though one potential juror was dismissed because her strict belief in karma would not allow her to return a guilty verdict (and karma seemed to get a few converts in the juror pool when they saw how easily the judge dismissed her), and another got the boot because he was part owner of a bike shop and had previous knowledge of the case.
Opening arguments were also largely the same as the last time this case went to trial. District attorney Chris Cabanero used the stage to full effect, adding drama and presenting a compelling reason for the four separate incidents over the course of a year…
“Michael Vandeman is an obsessed man. He is obsessed with mountain biking. It has consumed him and reached the core of his identity until he snapped and became violent…. It’s as strange and as simple as that.”
Defense attorney Robbi Cook was more polished the second time around, presenting her opening argument more fluidly and with some new ammunition from the previous testimony, dropping one of the phrases that seemed to partly cause the last mistrial herself.
“My client is an avid environmentalist. He has lectured internationally on environmental issues… the evidence will be that he successfully lobbied to keep mountain bikes off of the University of California campus and got the East Bay Municipal Utility District to bar bikes.
He’s made a name for himself in the mountain biking community… he is in fact notorious. They don’t like him, they have names for him. They call him ‘The Trail Nazi.”
Court broke for lunch after opening arguments at which point I asked my friend Michael for his analysis. Michael is letting me sleep on his futon and he decided to come watch today since I could pretty well guarantee that it would be interesting and his law school is on spring break.
Before he was trying to become a lawyer though, Michael and I studied comparative literature. So of course the first thing he wanted to talk about was a kind of double-meaning that Cook introduced when explaining why Vandeman was carrying a saw.
Michael: “She said that he brought a saw to cut… what was it?”
Me: “French Broom.”
Michael: “Right. She said it’s an invasive species, that he cuts it because it’s not supposed to be there. It’s kind of an unfortunate word choice, because she said he’s carrying the saw to cut things that aren’t supposed to be there.”
Me: “You mean mountain bikers?”
Michael: “It’s a subtle thing, but the jury might pick up on it.”
Me: “I don’t think the jury is on the lookout for literary tropes.”
Getting to more practical matters, Michael thought that the strength of the defense’s case rest in the fact that none of the bikers reported the case to the police and that in criminal cases like this one you have to show intent to cause harm, something difficult to prove.
Then again, Michael said, Vandeman doesn’t appear to be the kind of guy whose charisma will endear him to the jury. Once all the evidence is in, “juries do whatever they want.”
After lunch, James Lanham entered the court as the first witness, but before we get to that, let’s quickly go over Ian Richards’ second round of testimony, which took place later that afternoon.
Last time, Richards seemed slightly smug, and more generally, like he was talking about the incident in the back room of a bike shop rather than in front of a judge and jury. After the mistrial, the jury said he came off as a bit of a jerk. This time, he was more subdued and serious.
Other than that, there were hardly any changes to his testimony. His memory was fuzzy in the same places and Cook went after the same inconsistencies.
Lanham meanwhile, seemed something of a southern gentleman, with a slight drawl and, a kind of aww-shucks demeanor on the witness stand.
Not long into the testimony, he and Cabanero reenacted exactly how Vandeman’s saw came in contact with Lanham’s chest in the middle of the court room.
As he tells it, Lanham and his housemate were riding down the fire road when they came upon three hikers. The bikers moved to the right and slowed down, riding single file to go by.
Lanham said Vandeman came over and stuck the saw out at his housemate, who got around him, but that he himself did not have enough room on the side of the trail. Lanham stuck his left hand out and up into Vandeman’s face, but the handsaw raked across his chest.
“He wasn’t swinging it, but he was definitely moving forward,” Lanham said of the contact.
Lanham stopped fifteen feet down the trail, got off his bike, picked up a stick and yelled, “What the fuck is your problem?”
By this point Lanham’s roommate had stopped, asked what was going on and Lanham lifted his shirt to show the cut.
“Shut the fuck up,” his roommate said.
Vandeman’s response, according to Lanham, was: “You’re not supposed to be riding bikes here.”
It’s unclear who said it, but he also reported someone saying, “Well maybe the saw wasn’t a good idea.”
On cross examination, Cook seemed set on painting Lanham as something other than a law-abiding citizen. She pulled out transcripts of previous testimony to show he had testified that he knew the trail was illegal, and dove into how Vandeman got the name “Trail Nazi.”
She then went through the incident, questioning details and probing for holes in the story. Finally, she asked if there were other witnesses to the altercation and why he hadn’t gotten their contact information if they were witnesses.
The answer, it seems, is that despite the attack, Lanham wasn’t proud of acting ungentlemanly.
“They were cute college girls,” he said. “I was embarrassed that they saw me get off my bike and cuss at the old guy.”