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Archive for Saturday, October 21, 2006

Elderly driver convicted of manslaughter in market crash

October 21, 2006

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— 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 on 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 farmers 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.

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.

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