Elderly Driver Guilty in Market Crash
Oct. 21, 2006
LOS ANGELES (AP) _ An old man whose car hurtled through a farmers market, killing 10 people and injuring more than 70, was convicted Friday of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence _ the harshest verdict possible.
George Russell Weller, 89 and in poor health, could spend the rest of his life in prison for the 2003 crash, which set off a national debate over whether elderly people should be barred from driving or required to pass additional tests when renewing their licenses.
He faces a maximum of 18 years in prison, but the judge also could sentence him to probation. Prosecutors declined to say what penalty they would request.
Weller was not in court to hear the verdict, reached by a jury after eight days of deliberation.
His attorneys argued that he mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake and panicked when the vehicle raced into the open-air market. But prosecutors said he was careless to the point of criminal negligence and lacked remorse.
``He looked at what he had done, essentially shrugged his shoulders and said, 'Oops,''' prosecutor Ann Ambrose told the jury.
Weller was 86 when his 1992 Buick Le Sabre traveled about 300 yards, reaching 60 mph or more as it crashed into food stalls. It finally came to a stop after hitting a ditch, with one victim's body tangled underneath and another's draped across the hood. The victims ranged in age from 7 months to 78 years.
Weller did not testify, but jurors heard a taped interview with police immediately after the crash in which he said he tried everything he could think of to stop the car.
``I tried to take the control knob and jam it into park. Everything. Anything that I thought would stop the action of the car,'' he said.
Prosecutors also called one witness who claimed Weller said: ``You saw me coming; why didn't you get out of my way?''
Juror Yolanda Hernandez, 54, of Montebello, said after the verdict that the jury was influenced by that testimony and by Weller's statement to police, which the panel did not believe showed remorse.
She also indicated jurors didn't buy the argument that Weller couldn't figure out how to stop his car.
``He had 240 feet before he came to the barricade for the farmer's market. That's a long way, and he went 1,000 feet before he stopped,'' she said. ``He still had plenty of time to react.''
Hernandez said jurors agreed from the first day of deliberations that Weller was guilty of vehicular manslaughter but had trouble deciding whether he had committed gross negligence, a felony, or misdemeanor simple negligence.
Asked Wednesday by the panel to provide the legal definition of gross negligence, Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson wrote that it meant ``more than ordinary carelessness, inattention or mistake in judgment.''
Ambrose said Weller's age wasn't key to the prosecution's case.
``It has been our position from the beginning that no matter if you're 16 or 86, if you make the decision to get behind the wheel of a car, you have a duty of care,'' she said.
A survivor who is suing over injuries he suffered in the crash said he didn't want Weller locked up.
``There's nothing pleasing about this whole event,'' said Mark Miller, adding he had empathy for Weller as well as his fellow victims.
At Weller's Santa Monica home Friday, the blinds were drawn and nobody answered the door. A neighbor, Fran Peskoff, said she was stunned by the verdict, adding there was ``no way'' Weller could have run over people on purpose.
Since the accident, Peskoff said, Weller has become a recluse.
``He's not the warm, friendly man he used to be before the accident. He's been through an emotional upheaval,'' she said.
Weller was allowed to remain free on his own recognizance until sentencing; a date for that hearing was to be set late next week. Meanwhile, he is prohibited from driving.
Associated Press writer Daisy Nguyen in Santa Monica contributed to this report.