Prosecutors charged George Russell Weller on Monday with 10 felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence for killing 10 people as he sped through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market in July.
Weller, 87, is expected to turn himself in today at the airport branch of Los Angeles County Superior Court. If Weller is convicted, a judge will decide whether to place him on probation or sentence him to state prison for up to 18 years.
The decision comes after months of debate in the community over whether Weller should face criminal charges in what some believe was a tragic accident.
Santa Monica police concluded that Weller was conscious during the entire incident and didn't try to take his Buick LeSabre out of gear or use the brakes despite traveling nearly 1,000 feet down Arizona Avenue. The car came to a stop at the end of the market only because of rolling friction and a body trapped beneath, authorities said.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Farmers' Market -- An article in Tuesday's California section incorrectly stated that it was Dewey Gong's younger sister who was killed in the July 16 Santa Monica Farmers' Market tragedy. In fact, Diana McCarthy was Gong's older sister.
Police Chief James Butts urged Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley last month to file manslaughter charges, saying that Weller should have been aware of his own capacity to drive and was "at best" negligent in his operation of a motor vehicle.
"People refer to things as accidents, but if you negligently drive a vehicle and you hit a person and that person dies, that's a crime," said Head Deputy Dist. Atty. John Lynch. "Mr. Weller drove that vehicle negligently and he killed 10 people."
Lynch said prosecutors took care when making the filing decision because there were "pretty horrific injuries and death out there with a nontypical killing weapon and a nontypical defendant." The charges come after a lengthy investigation by the California Highway Patrol and the Santa Monica Police Department.
Prosecutors plan to ask for $50,000 bail in the case, which defense attorneys said they are ready to post if necessary. Weller has been free since the July 16 crash that killed 10 and injured 63 others.
Weller's attorneys, Mark Overland and Jim Bianco, said Monday that they were disappointed that Cooley decided to proceed with the case. They stressed that their own investigation concluded that the crash should not result in criminal charges.
"We're very disappointed that they decided to file charges at all, and we can't understand what the theory is of gross negligence," Overland said.
Overland said he believed that prosecutors may have felt they had to file some charges against Weller because of the number of people killed.
The charges leave it to a judge to determine whether Weller should be placed behind bars if convicted. Factors such as Weller's age and lack of criminal record would be taken into consideration if he were found guilty, said Tarzana attorney Peter Korn, who has been following the case.
Korn said he was not surprised by Cooley's decision to file manslaughter rather than murder charges.
"To file murder would have been too much," he said. "To file less than vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence would have sent the wrong message. This preserves the possibility to give him probation."
For a murder conviction, prosecutors must prove that the offender acted with malice. A conviction in this case would require proof that the driver acted negligently and that the act produced death.
In this case, Weller's attorneys could argue that he lost consciousness at the wheel, providing a defense that the act was involuntary. His family believes that he may have suffered a minor stroke during the crash.
Jenna Edwards, 26, who was injured in the crash, said Monday she is glad the district attorney's office filed the vehicular manslaughter charges against Weller.
"I don't necessarily think I want him to go to jail because I don't know what good that would do, but I am glad that they are at least charging him with something," she said.
Edwards said she, like many of the victims, wants to hear Weller say he's sorry.
Jose Reza's 3-year-old niece, Cindy Palacios Valladares, died after the Buick's bumper caught her and pulled her along. "It's good if he pays for what he did," Reza said.
Reza said he doesn't want to see something similar happen again and wants cities to make marketplaces safer for shoppers. There should have been a barrier that prevented Weller from driving down Arizona Avenue, he said.
Dewey Gong, whose younger sister, Diana McCarthy, was killed along with her husband, Kevin, said the decision to charge Weller was "a good start." But, he said, "the city of Santa Monica has to take some responsibility in what has occurred. I understand it was Mr. Weller who drove the car, but it was on city streets and property."
The tragedy occurred just as the Wednesday farmers' market was closing for the afternoon. Weller had caused a minor collision on the corner of Arizona Avenue and Fourth Street, police said, and then drove around a road closure sign before racing through the marketplace.