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Erratic Driving by Weller Is Detailed

The man accused of killing 10 at a farmers market drove strangely earlier, a witness says.

September 27, 2006|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

Hours before he ran down dozens of pedestrians at a farmers market, George Russell Weller drove erratically on a nearby street, switching lanes without warning, slowing and speeding up and stopping suddenly, a witness testified Tuesday.

A researcher for the Rand Corp. said Weller cut him off and then tried to block an attempt to pass.

"I tried to pass him," said David Eisenman, who was driving to work in Santa Monica at midmorning July 16, 2003. "I didn't want to be behind him." Weller's Buick "sped up too."

Three hours later, Weller, now 89, was involved in a minor accident and then sped away into the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, killing 10 people and injuring more than 60.

Weller is on trial on 10 counts of manslaughter. His defense contends that the deaths were an accident, not a crime, and that he pressed the accelerator when he meant to hit the brake.

Tuesday marked the end of the prosecution's case, as Deputy Dist Atty. Ann Ambrose rested. Defense attorney Mark Borenstein then called California Highway Patrol Sgt. Donald Karol, the supervisor of accident investigation teams.

He confirmed that his group considered "pedal error" the "best explanation" for Weller's actions. But Karol said the team concluded that Weller "actively steered" his car through the market and said the cause of the crash was Weller's speed.

Investigators found metal exposed on the brake pedal, its rubber pad worn through. Karol said that suggested that Weller had driven regularly with his foot on the side of the brake pedal that was nearest to the accelerator.

The overall investigation also concluded that Weller was not fleeing the scene of an earlier minor accident with a Mercedes, near the start of the market.

"Is it your opinion that Mr. Weller could have stopped that car at any time by stepping on the brake pedal?" Ambrose asked in cross-examination. "Yes," Karol responded.

"Was it your opinion that Mr. Weller could have stopped that car by stepping on the emergency brake?" Ambrose asked.

"Yes," Karol said.

Earlier in the day, Eisenman said he had recognized Weller from television coverage the day of the tragedy and called police.

Weller's lawyers failed to convince Judge Michael Johnson that the testimony was not relevant. Earlier, Johnson ruled that incidents on Weller's driving record were too remote to be useful for jurors.

Those earlier incidents include:

* Two weeks before the farmers market crash, a neighbor of Weller's watched him collide with a gardener's truck near his home. "The defendant was clearly at fault, but falsely claimed that the other driver had waved him through," according to court papers.

* In 1998, Weller was maneuvering in a parking lot when he struck a parked vehicle four times. When the owner approached Weller, "he appeared to be unaware that he had struck her car, and had a poor attitude," according to court papers. Weller's insurance covered the damage.

* In 1993, Weller backed his Buick over a retaining wall. The accident was caught on videotape, according to court documents.

Another defense lawyer, Mark Overland, argued unsuccessfully Tuesday that jurors might conclude that Weller was guilty in the farmers market crash simply because there is evidence he drove dangerously hours before. Ambrose suggested that Eisenman's testimony was needed to contradict the defense argument that the deaths were strictly accidental.

Eisenman told jurors he sped up along San Vicente Boulevard to escape Weller's driving.

"I felt I needed to get away from this car. I wanted to get in front of it," Eisenman said. When he finally pulled away, he said, a police officer stopped him and cited him for speeding. Eisenman said he tried to explain that he was trying to evade a dangerous situation but that the officer was not sympathetic. "I had to pay the ticket," Eisenman said.

*

john.spano@latimes.com

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