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Trial in Market Tragedy Ordered

Times Staff Writer

An 87-year-old man must stand trial for killing 10 people as he drove his car through the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market last year, a judge ruled Wednesday.

George Russell Weller’s attorneys argued unsuccessfully that the elderly driver accidentally pressed the gas pedal instead of the brake and then went into a “panic” mode that prevented him from being able to stop.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Ann Ambrose countered, “He sent 63 people to the hospital and 10 people to the morgue.... That is not merely a tragedy. That is a crime.”

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader called the case unprecedented. Whether or not Weller went into a “hyper-vigilant” state after pressing the wrong pedal, Mader said, his error caused him to negligently drive the car through the busy marketplace.

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“Mr. Weller continued to drive, with bodies flying over his car,” she said. “Mr. Weller did not react to the bedlam, the screams, the crashing of the stalls.”

Mader’s decision came after a seven-day preliminary hearing that included testimony from eyewitnesses, experts and officials from the California Highway Patrol.

Weller faces 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, charges punishable by 18 years in prison. He is to return to court Nov. 17.

Just before 2 p.m. on July 16, 2003, Weller drove his Buick LeSabre down Arizona Avenue at freeway speed, knocking over produce stands, crashing into shoppers and causing devastation through the open-air market. The case prompted calls for restrictions on elderly drivers and for barricades to guard the popular marketplace. The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office filed criminal charges in January.

During closing arguments, Ambrose told the judge that Weller should be held criminally responsible for the deaths because he failed to do anything to stop the carnage.

Weller steered for the length of three football fields and avoided hitting any parked cars, at the cost of innocent lives, she said. He stopped only when a body trapped beneath his car became a “human brake,” the prosecutor said.

Ambrose acknowledged that pedal error may have caused the crash, but said that ordinary drivers do not mistake one pedal for the other while driving for 1,000 feet.

“Pedal error in and of itself is negligent behavior,” she told the judge.


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