The jury returned Friday morning, October 20, and convicted George Russell Weller, 89, on 10 felony counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence in the criminal trial arising out of the July 2003 Santa Monica Farmers’ Market tragedy in which 10 persons were killed and over 60 injured.
Jurors were dismissed after deliberating since Friday, October 6, in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom of Judge Michael Johnson. The jury announced that it had reached a verdict about 10:30 Friday morning, and the verdict was read at 11:10 a.m. Weller was not present.
Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley said: “We are pleased the jury returned a guilty verdict on all counts as charged against Mr. Weller. We have always believed the difficult issues raised by this case needed to be aired in public and decided by a jury. This helps conclude a case that involved incredible human devastation and mayhem. We acknowledge the judge’s responsibility to make the difficult sentencing decision.”
The jury apparently rejected Weller’s contention that “pedal error” – confusion between the accelerator and the brake pedals – caused the accident so as to obviate criminal consequences.
The parties will return to Judge Johnson’s courtroom on October 27 for a hearing to set a date for sentencing. Weller could be sentenced to as much as 18 years in prison. The District Attorney’s Office has said it will make no recommendations on sentencing.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Weller’s lawyer said that he will appeal. Although no specific grounds for an appeal were stated by the newspaper, it did quote Mark Overland, Weller’s attorney, as saying that the prosecution played up the tragic and blooding aspects of the case, and, “It’s very emotional and it’s difficult for jurors to put those questions out of their minds.”
Weller remains a defendant in multiple civil damage actions arising out of the tragedy, in which claims have been asserted against not only him, but also the City of Santa Monica, the downtown business Bayside District Corporation and others. Those cases are now set to go to trial in January 2007, although some claims against the City have been dismissed in pretrial proceedings.
Asked to comment on the criminal verdict against Weller, Joyce Mendlin, lawyer for two of those injured at the Farmers’ Market, said, “That something like this might happen was foreseeable, and the City of Santa Monica and Bayside District and others failed to take reasonable precautions to protect the people whom the City and Bayside encouraged to attend and shop at the Farmers’ Market – particularly when the market is held on a busy public street.”