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He May Be Responsible but He’s Not Guilty

The district attorney has decided to charge Russell Weller with 10 counts of felony vehicular manslaughter in the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market case. Those charges could, at least in theory, put an 87-year-old man in prison for up to 18 years.

But let me tell you this: There is nothing the district attorney can do to Russ Weller that compares with the personal hell he has endured, and continues to endure, every day since the tragic accident occurred July 16.

I admit to a certain bias. I am Weller’s nephew. When my own father was consumed by alcoholism, it was Russ who took on my father’s role and who has been there for me ever since. He set an example for me by being an extraordinary human being. For his whole long life, Russ has always reached out to help others and has never, to my knowledge, turned his back on anyone. His life has been a relatively simple one: It hasn’t been about getting rich or outdoing his neighbors or living in luxury. It’s been about finding joy in his friends, family and colleagues.

It may not mean much to the families of those who died in the accident at the farmers’ market, but Russ has been the patriarch of our extended family, a tireless volunteer in his church and community -- he helped renovate a branch of the Santa Monica library by organizing fundraisers and actually helped put books back on the shelves. He was a tutor to struggling high school students -- many of whom went on to college.

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For Russ and our family, there is no escaping the tragedy of July 16. He knows that he was behind the wheel of that car and that he caused the deaths of 10 people and injuries to many others. The extent of the devastation is overwhelming to Russ. He is distraught, horrified, penitent, broken down. I can’t begin to describe how sorry Russ is for what happened.

But does that mean that Russ should go to prison? That an old man who didn’t mean to harm anyone should live his final years away from his family? The district attorney says he believes this tragic accident “should be addressed in the courtroom.” The prosecutor has called Russ’ conduct “reckless.”

The truth is that there was nothing in Russ’ past driving record that could have predicted the terrible accident. Russ was an excellent driver who, in more than 70 years behind the wheel, never got a traffic ticket. His doctors never once suggested that he was unable to drive safely or that any medication he was taking would affect his driving. He has been driving with no impairment whatever for many years, even after hip surgery.

Any reports claiming that Russ was prone to accidents or driving carelessly are simply not true. Of the two small accidents he has had, neither was serious enough to report to the Department of Motor Vehicles. One was found not to be his fault, and the other resulted from a small fender-bender in a Costco parking lot. That video of Russ backing down a long, winding driveway more than 10 years ago proves absolutely nothing about his driving ability; most people would have trouble maneuvering down it the first time.

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The enormity of the tragedy is beyond question. But I just don’t understand what Russ did that was grossly negligent or reckless. Awful, yes, but not criminally negligent. Does the district attorney really believe that Russell Weller, who has done nothing but help other people for his entire life, made a conscious decision to keep driving through the market? A terrible accident is not necessarily a crime.

Even without a criminal prosecution, the civil courts will provide compensation to the victims. Two civil suits are already underway, and it is likely there will be more on the way soon. Russ will almost certainly lose the only real thing he owns, his house in Santa Monica, to help compensate the victims. Russ has lived in that house for more than 50 years, along with Harriet, his wife of 65 years.

No one disputes that Russ was responsible for this horrific accident; after all, he was driving the car. But I cannot see the wisdom, the justice or the facts to support the filing of criminal charges. As a society, can we not distinguish between responsibility and criminality?

Robert Bones is a surgeon in San Diego.

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