LOS ANGELES – An 89-year-old man whose car hurtled through a farmers market, killing 10 people, was let off on probation Monday by a judge who said he believed the defendant deserved to go prison but was too ill.
George Russell Weller was convicted Oct. 20 of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence in a case that renewed debate over whether elderly people should lose their driver's licenses.
Weller, confined to a sickbed, was not in court for his sentencing.
Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson said he agreed completely with the jury and called Weller's actions callous and showing "an enormous indifference to human life."
Weller was 86 when his 1992 Buick Le Sabre plowed at freeway speed into the crowded farmers market on July 16, 2003. In addition to the 10 killed, more than 70 people were injured.
Weller could have received up to 18 years in prison, but the judge said Weller's health problems, including severe heart disease, would make him a burden on prison authorities and taxpayers, and that imprisonment would most likely kill Weller.
Defense attorneys argued that Weller was a victim of "pedal error" in which he panicked and mistook the car's accelerator for the brake. Prosecutors said he was careless to the point of criminal negligence.
The judge noted that Weller had enough control of his vehicle to avoid cars and trucks within the farmers market.
"Mr. Weller chose to steer into the people, plowing into the crowd and literally launching bodies into the air as his car sped 2 1/2 blocks," the judge said. The judge also called Weller's apologies hollow.
The district attorney's office did not make a sentencing recommendation but cited a probation officer's recommendation that Weller spend at least a short time in prison.
"I believe the courts have to be practical as well as principled," the judge said. "I don't see any purpose of sending Mr. Weller to jail or prison. It wouldn't do anybody any good."
Weller, a month short of his 90th birthday, was placed on five years' felony probation. Penalties and fines against him totaled $34,000, and he was also ordered to pay restitution to survivors of those who were killed.
The crash sparked a national debate over whether elderly drivers should be given road and written tests when they renew their licenses.
Although Weller did not testify, a tape of his interview with police immediately after the accident was played in court. He told authorities he did everything he could think of to stop the vehicle, including attempting to throw its gearshift knob into park.