Driver is guilty in deaths of 10

Calif. octogenarian who plowed through market in 2003 could get 18-year term

October 21, 2006|By John Spano | John Spano,Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- The elderly driver who ran down and killed 10 people in an open-air market was convicted yesterday on all charges, despite defense pleas for mercy.

George Russell Weller, 89, could be sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Weller will appeal, said defense attorney Mark Overland.

By their unanimous verdict, jurors rejected arguments that the driver had simply made a mistake. They found him guilty on 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence for killing 10 people.

He injured 68 others on July 16, 2003, when he drove at high speed through the Farmers Market in Santa Monica. The deadly drive lasted less than 20 seconds and was depicted in animation for jurors.

Weller clearly "had adequate time to take evasive action" before plowing into the pedestrians, said juror Thomas Walls.

Prosecutors said Weller was criminally responsible and should be held accountable. They suggested that he was trying to run from a minor accident he was involved in near the market entrance. His 1992 Buick burst through wooden barriers and killed an infant, a 3-year-old child, a married couple, a homeless man and an octogenarian, among others.

In closing arguments, prosecutor Ann Ambrose urged jurors to reject the idea that the violent death of 10 citizens was an accident.

Throughout the trial, Weller, who will turn 90 on Dec. 7, remained a mystery. His lawyers fought to keep him out of the courtroom, and he was not present yesterday.

Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson had required Weller, who uses a wheelchair, to attend opening statements by the prosecutor. The defendant sat staring at a huge photograph of his car, a body resting on the windshield and another under the wheels.

The prosecution produced witnesses who told of Weller's coldness, his lack of concern and even arrogance after the crash.

"If you saw me coming, why didn't you get out of the way?" two witnesses quoted Weller as saying within minutes of his deadly drive through the market.

The defense focused on Weller's expressions of sorrow in a two-hour videotape secretly recorded within an hour of the incident by Santa Monica police.

Weller appeared contrite, apologized for hurting "those poor, poor people," and acknowledged that the incident was his fault. He said he had tried everything he could think of to stop the car.

"I'm in big trouble with my heart and soul. That you can't fix," the camera caught him saying.

At the heart of the case was whether the deaths were the result of an accident or a crime.

Ten counts of felony manslaughter can be punished by a maximum of 18 years in state prison.

Shoppers and market workers said Weller repeatedly revved the engine as he passed through the market - suggesting that he moved his foot on and off the accelerator - and steered to avoid vehicles parked on either side of the road.

All of the witnesses but one said they never saw brake lights or any other indication that Weller had tried to stop the car.

John Spano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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