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Witness Ties Pedal Error to Shaq's Missed Baskets

Psychologist says the elderly driver showed classic signs of panic as his car plowed through crowded Santa Monica farmers market.

September 30, 2006|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

George Russell Weller showed the classic symptoms of pedal error and panic when he drove through an open-air market in Santa Monica three years ago, killing 10 people and injuring more than 60, jurors were told Friday.

During testimony in Weller's manslaughter trial, Richard Schmidt, a professor of psychology specializing in motor function and control, used basketball star Shaquille O'Neal's notorious inability to shoot free throws to explain part of the incident.

Weller wanted to hit the brakes, but his brain could not get his foot to perform properly, and instead he stepped on the gas pedal. Similarly, Schmidt said, a basketball free throw shooter "is exactly sure that what he has to do, or she has to do, is put the ball in the basket. We all know that sometimes they don't."

"There could be no reason, in the sense that there is no reason why Shaq missed a free throw to the right that time," Schmidt told jurors. "The system is variable."

Weller, who faces 10 criminal counts, reached the heart of his defense Friday: that he, then 86, hit the wrong pedal, accelerated rather than braked, panicked and could not reverse course as he plowed through the farmers market.

The prosecution claims Weller acted with gross negligence to evade an earlier fender-bender.

"Did Mr. Weller act exactly the way you would expect any driver to act in the same or similar circumstances he was confronted with?" Mark Borenstein, Weller's lawyer, asked Schmidt.

"Yes, I think so," Schmidt responded over objections by the prosecutor.

Schmidt offered his services to the Santa Monica police within days of the crash, saying he suspected pedal error was to blame in the case.

Under questioning by the prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Ann Ambrose, Schmidt said he developed that opinion before he had any information about Weller, the medication he was taking or how his car was functioning.

Schmidt said about 10,000 cases of unintended acceleration have been recorded in the last 20 years.

Most last eight to 14 seconds, but Schmidt said he worked on a case that involved what he said was the world record for pedal error, 45 seconds.

Startling events can cause unintended acceleration at any time: when a motorist is starting a car, driving on a highway or "driving over a pothole," Schmidt said. For Weller, his involvement in a minor accident could have caused him to panic.

"The person is as panicked or as terrified as you can ever imagine: That's the kind of state the person is in," testified Schmidt, who has written three textbooks and published 163 articles in professional journals. For Weller, "panic gets worse and worse as the situation gets worse and worse."

Many witnesses described Weller as peering intently straight ahead and clasping the wheel tightly as he plowed through the market. Many said he swerved right and left during his drive along Arizona Avenue, which prosecutors suggested indicates he was steering his 1992 Buick, which missed parked vehicles.

Schmidt testified that steering is not inconsistent with unintended acceleration. He said that in the incidents he studied, "sometime there was a little bit of steering, sometimes."

Also testifying was Thomas Shelton, a retired California Highway Patrol officer who investigated 8,000 accidents but said he has seen only five examples of pedal error.

Shelton started his CHP career as a patrol officer in Santa Fe Springs, where he saw his first pedal error accident. An elderly driver accelerated into another vehicle. The crash lifted her car over the top of the other car, and it came to rest with its rear end in the air, Shelton testified.

"The rear wheels on the Cadillac were just spinning away. I tried to get her attention. I had to climb up on the vehicle and take her keys away."

"She had her pedal to the floor," said Shelton. "She was just revving that engine as high as it could go."

All the drivers thought they had hit the brakes.

"They all made the statements that they thought that their foot was on the brake and they didn't realize they had made the pedal error," Shelton said.

john.spano@latimes.com

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