LOS ANGELES – An elderly man who killed 10 people and injured more than 70 when his car roared through an outdoor farmers market in Santa Monica three years ago was found guilty Friday of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.
George Russell Weller, 89, was not in court to hear the verdict that resulted from the July 2003 crash. With the judge's permission, the frail, white-haired defendant, who uses a wheelchair, attended only the trial's opening statements.
Weller faces as many as 18 years in prison when sentenced.
Jurors deliberated eight days before reaching the harshest verdict possible. While Weller could have been convicted of misdemeanor negligence, the panel opted for felonies.
Defense attorneys argued that Weller was a victim of "pedal error," in which he panicked and mistook his car's accelerator for the brake when it raced into the open-air market on July 16, 2003. 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.
On Wednesday, jurors had indicated they were having trouble reaching a verdict and asked Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson to explain the legal definition of felony gross negligence. Johnson responded in writing that it meant "more than ordinary carelessness, inattention or mistake in judgment."
The jurors then took Thursday off and came back with their verdict on Friday.
During the trial, jurors were shown photographs of several of the victims, including one who was sprawled on the street amid scattered strawberries. Another appeared to be embedded in the crumpled hood of Weller's car. Those killed ranged in age from 7 months to 78 years.
Although Weller did not testify during the trial, jurors did hear his taped interview with police immediately after the crash in which he said he tried everything he could think of to stop his 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 told a California Highway patrol investigator and a Santa Monica police detective.
He said he had no idea how many people he hit.
"But I'm deeply sorry for any pain that everyone went through. It was my fault," he said.
The crash left behind a devastating scene of carnage on what, until moments before, had been an idyllic Southern California summer day. It also ignited a national debate over whether elderly people should be allowed to continue to drive.
Weller was 86 when he sent his 1992 Buick Le Sabre roaring into the crowded farmers market on July 16, 2003. The vehicle traveled some 300 yards, reaching speeds of 60 mph or more, as it crashed into food stalls and mowed down scores of people. 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 main issue raised at trial was whether Weller had control of the car during the 20 seconds it careened through the market.
Prosecutors said that was more than enough time to realize and correct his mistake, suggesting he steered into people and away from parked cars to avoid hurting himself.They called one witness who claimed Weller said: "You saw me coming, why didn't you get out of my way?"
Defense attorneys called expert witnesses who testified that Weller had likely been in a trancelike state of shock and was unable to determine he was pumping the accelerator and not the brake.
The tragedy had begun uneventfully enough with Weller, a retired food broker, leaving his Santa Monica home to mail a letter to his great-niece.
"How do you figure that a simple thing like that would be a precursor to all of the agony that I brought people?" he asked during his interview with police.
Witnesses testified that after Weller left the post office his car rear-ended a Mercedes-Benz just outside the farmer's market, then roared through the market's entrance.