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Trial in Market Crash Set to Begin

George Russell Weller, 89, is charged with manslaughter in the 2003 tragedy in Santa Monica that left 10 shoppers dead.

September 04, 2006|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

George Russell Weller told police he had no idea how the car he was driving accelerated through a crowded farmers market in Santa Monica more than three years ago.

Nor, Weller said within an hour of the incident, did he know how his car came to a stop after leaving nearly 1,000 feet of carnage, 10 people dead and more than 60 injuries in its wake.

Weller spoke of the "poor people" who died and his "contribution" to their deaths, and mused on divine purpose in an interview with police that day, July 16, 2003. He tried repeatedly to describe what happened, grasping for any explanation that made sense.

A Los Angeles County Superior Court jury is to be chosen, beginning Tuesday, to decide whether Weller, who learned to drive on a Ford Model T, committed a crime or just played an unfortunate role in a tragedy.

He is charged with 10 counts of manslaughter. If convicted, Weller, 89, would become one of the oldest of the 161,000 inmates in the California prison system. (The oldest is 93, according to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.)

Jurors must draw the sort of fine distinctions between carelessness and recklessness that have bedeviled such panels for centuries. But they probably will do so without hearing from Weller, who has refused to testify in civil lawsuits filed by the injured and survivors of the deceased, citing his 5th Amendment right not to incriminate himself.

That leaves what Weller said three years ago.

In the police interrogation, contained in 43 pages of transcripts obtained last week by The Times, Weller sounded contrite, bewildered -- and uncomprehending.

He lamented not taking his wife's advice. Their niece was to be married in San Diego that weekend, and he wanted to make sure that she received their written congratulations. Weller told officers he had rejected his wife's suggestion that he hand the envelope to their letter carrier.

"If I had listened to her and given it to Earnie and gone back in and sat down by the couch and minded my own damn business, I would have never been there...."

He seemed to marvel at what he saw as the innocent beginning of that deadly day. He mailed the letter at the post office at Arizona Avenue and 4th Street and took a wrong turn toward the farmers market.

"How do you figure that a single thing like that would be a precursor to all of the agony that I brought to people?"

Weller was asked about his World War II service, his bout with cancer and his ill wife. He sounded intelligent.

"God almighty, those poor people. Poor, poor, tragic people.... And what a tragic ending to their outing, and I contributed to it, which is just almost more than I can figure out."

In the interview, Weller asked repeatedly what had happened to those he ran down at the Santa Monica Farmers' Market. But he struggled to describe what he was doing, what he was thinking.

"When I finally came to a rest -- my God, what have I done? And right to this moment I can't tell you. From the moment that car accelerated, to the best of my knowledge, I tried everything that you do to an automobile and tried to put on the foot brake; I tried to take my foot off of the gas; I tried to take the control knob and jam it into park. Everything, anything that I thought would stop the action of the car, I tried in that block, unsuccessfully, maybe, maybe not. Because it did come to a stop. I don't know what caused that."

To make their case, prosecutors must show that Weller was criminally negligent or so severely careless as to justify imprisonment. The defense contends that Weller had one monumental, horrendous senior moment in which he tried to brake, but hit the accelerator by mistake and simply could not correct himself.

Half a dozen experts are expected to clash as they try to reconstruct, analyze and assess Weller's mental acuity and physical ability.

National safety officials have studied the phenomenon of so-called pedal error and found thousands of examples.

Earlier this summer, an 85-year-old motorist, mistaking the gas pedal for the brake, drove his car into a crowded coffee shop in El Monte, injuring 10 people. Police said he would not be charged with a crime.

There were 427 accidents reported in the United States involving "unintended acceleration" in 1989 and 61 in 1992 -- the last year for which statistics are available -- after wider use of a mechanical change that made it impossible to put a car into gear unless the driver had a foot on the brake.

Drivers older than 70 are more than five times more likely than others to experience pedal error, according to Rae Tyson of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Many of the survivors of the Santa Monica incident don't see criminal prosecution as warranted, even though progress has been slow for victims who seek to recover damages.

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