LOS ANGELES, Nov. 20 — An aged man who killed 10 people when his car plowed into a crowded farmers’ market was sentenced Monday to five years’ probation by a judge who cited the defendant’s failing health in not imposing a prison sentence.
The driver, George R. Weller, now 89, deserves to be behind bars both for the magnitude of what occurred and for his lack of public remorse since, said the judge, Michael M. Johnson of Los Angeles County Superior Court. But imprisoning Mr. Weller, who is bedridden and under 24-hour nursing care, “wouldn’t do anybody any good” and would burden taxpayers with the cost of his medical care, the judge said.
As at most of his trial, the defendant was not in court Monday, because he has a heart ailment and other medical problems. He was convicted last month of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, and could have been sentenced to up to 18 years in prison.
Mr. Weller was 86 on July 16, 2003, when he turned his 1992 Buick LeSabre into the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market and kept pressing on the accelerator even as his car smashed into a crowd of shoppers. In addition to those killed — nine adults and a 2-year-old — more than 70 people were injured.
Mr. Weller’s lawyers said he had confused the brake with the accelerator, and the incident brought a national debate about whether stricter measures should be adopted to ensure that the elderly are competent to drive.
Judge Johnson handed down the sentence despite prosecutors’ efforts to have the proceedings delayed so that the district attorney’s office could obtain an evaluation of Mr. Weller’s medical condition from doctors at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
“Our office felt we didn’t have the medical and psychiatric information necessary to make a reasoned decision” on a sentencing recommendation, said Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman, “and that’s why we asked for further testing.”
Mr. Weller’s apparent lack of remorse has been a central issue for the families of the dead. In issuing the sentence, which also requires the defendant to pay restitution to the families, Judge Johnson said he would “never understand Mr. Weller’s indifference to the victims in this case” or his “bullheaded refusal to accept responsibility.”
Testifying at the hearing, the family of Lynne Ann Weaver, one of those killed, condemned Mr. Weller’s frequent absence from court and his failure to offer an apology.
Ms. Weaver was 47 and the mother of a teenage daughter when she was struck. A sister of hers, Gretchen Haug, told the court Monday: “I should not be here today, or ever at all. I’m very angry. There’s no excuse for what Mr. Weller has done.”
Still, another sister, Erin Villalobos, said after the hearing that she was satisfied with the sentence and that “I believe he’s serving time in his own prison.”
Dr. Robert Bone, a nephew of Mr. Weller, testified that the defendant had spent much of his time volunteering with civic organizations after retiring as a supermarket supplier. Ever since that day at the farmers’ market, Dr. Bone said, his uncle has led a life “dominated by guilt and depression” and asks him to offer a blessing for the victims at every family holiday gathering.
Mr. Weller’s lawyers say they are appealing his conviction on grounds of possible jury misconduct. One accusation is that a juror spoke to his minister about the case before the verdicts were reached.
As for the sentence, “I think the judge did the right thing,” said one of the defense lawyers, Mark E. Overland. “Also, we’re talking here about an individual who did not commit an offense that was intentional” and who “except for 20 seconds, lived a life that all of us can envy.”
More Articles in National »