Wednesday, November 22, 2006

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George Russell Weller
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George Russell Weller (born December 7, 1916) is a retired salesman from Santa Monica, California, who gained notoriety as the motorist in a fatal car accident, fueling a national debate on safety risks posed by elderly drivers. On October 20, 2006, Weller was found guilty of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter. The following month, the judge sentenced him to five years' felony probation, saying that Weller deserved to go prison but at nearly 90 years of age and suffering from heart disease, he would simply be a burden to taxpayers. He was also ordered to pay about $107,100 in fines and restitution.

[edit] Santa Monica Farmer's Market massacre
At 1:47 p.m. on July 16, 2003, Weller, then age 86, drove his red 1992 Buick Le Sabre westbound down Arizona Ave. towards the popular Third Street Promenade. The last few blocks of the street before the ocean had been closed for the weekly farmers' market. Weller struck a car from behind, then accelerated around a road closure sign, crashed through wooden sawhorses, and plowed into the busy crowd, driving nearly 1,000 feet (305 meters) at speeds between 40 and 60 mph (65 and 95 km/h). The entire sequence of collisions took at least 10 seconds. The car was eventually brought to a halt by the body of a victim trapped underneath. Ten people were killed, and 63 were injured. Weller told investigators he had accidentally put his foot on the accelerator instead of the brake, then tried to brake but could not stop. Days after the crash, Weller issued a statement saying he was distraught and heartbroken, and his attorney called it an accident.

Some observers questioned Weller's account, noting that witnesses reported:

Seeing no brake lights on Weller's car;
That Weller stared straight ahead as he drove through the crowd, victims flying over his windshield;
That Weller avoided parked cars to the side of the road, steering instead directly down the middle of the crowded street; and
That upon exiting his car, cane in hand, Weller casually asked how many people he had hit.
Weller's supporters argue that:

Weller suffered from arthritis, nausea as a side-effect of medication, and reduced mobility from a hip replacement.
Weller had a relatively clean driving record at the DMV, with one minor accident and no violations. Weller had passed a vision test and written test on renewing his driver's license in November 2000.
Since the tragedy resulted from a "misapplication" of the pedal, Weller had committed an accident, not a crime. "Pedal error cannot constitute negligence," stated Mark Overland, an attorney for Weller.

[edit] Aftermath timeline
On July 16, 2003 footage of a previous accident Weller had been in ten years earlier surfaced. While that accident was not fatal, he had driven his car off the road in much the same fashion as the Promenade accident and the footage was nearly identical in that it showed a confused Weller wandering around his crashed car in a heavily populated, public area. This further sparked debate surrounding what warning signs authorities should examine when dealing with driving privileges and the elderly.

On July 24, 2003, it was reported that state officials revoked Weller's driver's license.

On January 5, 2004, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office charged George Russell Weller with ten counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, carrying a penalty of up to 18 years in prison. Weller's attorneys were ordered to surrender their client within 24 hours.

On January 6, 2004, Weller pleaded not guilty to the charges before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paula Adele Mabrey and was released on his own recognizance.

On January 14, 2004, victims and relatives filed suit against the City of Santa Monica and Bayside District Corp., organizers of the Santa Monica farmers' market, alleging that the accident could have been prevented by the installation of metal barriers. Attorney Geoff Wells, representing victims and their relatives, remarked that "[The defendants] failed to take any reasonable steps to provide protection for the patrons at the farmer's market."

On October 25, 2004, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader convened a preliminary hearing to determine whether Weller would stand trial.

On November 3, 2004, Weller was ordered to stand trial, and his arraignment was scheduled for November 17.

On December 8, 2004, after a delay due to poor health, Weller was arraigned, again pleaded not guilty to the charges, and waived his right to a speedy trial.

On March 18, 2005, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert O'Neill denied a motion by Weller's attorneys to dismiss the manslaughter charges, remarking that "hitting the accelerator instead of the brake seems to me to be a clearly negligent act."

On October 20, 2006, by a unanimous verdict, jurors found Weller guilty on all charges, convicting him of vehicular manslaughter for killing 10 pedestrians. The sentence was to be decided by the Court, with a maximum penalty of 18 years.

On November 20, 2006, Weller received probation on all counts after a judge determined that Weller was too ill to go to prison, where he would likely be a burden on prison authorities and taxpayers. Weller was a month short of his 90th birthday. He was also ordered to pay more than $100,000 in fines and restitution to the victims' families.

[edit] References

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