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Jurors Struggled With Weller's Level of Guilt

Panelists say they focused on the driver's actions and alleged comments after the farmers market crash rather than his age.

October 21, 2006|Jessica Garrison and John Spano | Times Staff Writers

Jurors weighing the fate of 89-year-old George Weller had a mountain of evidence to consider, but only one real question to answer: Was the deadly crash at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market three years ago an accident, or was it a crime?

They came down firmly on the side of it being a crime, finding Weller guilty of the most serious charges and rejecting defense evidence that Weller, an upstanding citizen whose lawyer said he has been destroyed by the accident, succumbed to "pedal error" -- a driving mistake that happens when a person becomes disoriented and mistakes the gas pedal for the brake.

Several jurors said they disregarded Weller's age -- then 86 -- altogether, focusing instead on his actions and post-crash remarks.

Weller "had adequate time to take evasive action," said juror Thomas Walls. Instead, his 1992 Buick LeSabre roared through traffic barricades, killing 10 and wounding more than 60 in a horrifying act of carnage that upended fruit and vegetable stands and left the peaceful seaside market in ruins.

Yolanda Hernandez, 54, of Montebello said she felt Weller "had many choices. We did not see that he took hold of those choices.... He drove 240 feet before he ran into the barricade for the farmers market. That's a long way."

Many jurors left without speaking to reporters, but those who stayed said Weller, a retired salesman and 1934 graduate of Santa Monica High School, seemed like "not a reckless person" and "a good man."

Weller, who is in poor health, attended the first day of his trial in a wheelchair but did not appear thereafter, an absence that experts said may have made it easier for jurors to come back with a tough verdict.

Still, their stern decision was a contrast to their sad and grave demeanor Friday as the clerk read the names of the 10 people who died, one by one, intoning their guilty verdicts after each one.

From the moment they retired to deliberate, jurors said, they were unanimous about convicting Weller but wrestled with his degree of guilt. The judge had given them the option of convicting on a lesser charge of negligence or the more serious charge that prosecutors brought, gross negligence.

After weeks of graphic testimony that included descriptions of a 3-year-old child flying out of her mother's arms as she died, jurors said, they had been struggling to understand the distinction between regular and gross negligence.

Legal experts said it is by no means a simple distinction.

Stephen Garvey, a Cornell University law professor who has written about the subject, said the dividing line is "not very satisfying" and presents a tricky philosophical issue.

On Wednesday, after more than a week of deliberation, jurors had reached such an impasse that they wrote a note to the judge.

"We have not been able to reach common ground" on the verdicts, the note read, requesting a clearer explanation.

Judge Michael Johnson wrote back that gross negligence was "more than ordinary carelessness."

"A person acts with gross negligence when the way he acts ... amounts to a disregard for human life."

After Johnson's answer, juror Walls said, the picture became "clearer for those who were having trouble."

UCLA law professor Peter Arenella said the jurors' difficulties suggested that they simply could not accept that "human life can be lost in a tragic accident where no one is at fault."

"The jury finds it hard to believe there might be a noncriminal explanation for this."

Hernandez said she was influenced by two witnesses who testified that Weller got out of his car at the end of the market and said, "If you saw me coming, why didn't you get out of the way?"

Weller's lawyers denied that he said that. But the callousness of the alleged statement stayed with Hernandez. "It meant a lot," she said.

Garvey, the Cornell law professor, said he was not surprised at the verdict but rather saw it "just as a matter of human psychology."

"If something bad happens, there has to be somebody who is culpable for it," he said. People can't accept that "bad things happen. There has to be reasons for them."

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