My father’s a courtroom lawyer. While I struggle over AP English and balance Marching Band, Mark Borenstein, my father, is hoping to seek justice for a man’s life. Enter Russell Weller: beloved father, neighbor, convicted felon and my father’s client.
On July 16, 2003, a hideous accident occurred. It is an accident that remains implanted in all of our minds. That July afternoon, Russ Weller drove his 1992 Buick LaSabre through a crowded Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. Ten people died and nearly 70 more were injured. As my father noted in his Opening Statement on September 12, 2006, the first day of the trial and the only day Weller was present, “There might be a Law and Order moment where you will be shown a gut-wrenching, absolutely tearful picture of a victim, but that’s theatre.” I agree. Terrible and tragic as the deaths and injuries were, those facts do not determine whether Weller committed a crime or a horrible accident. He has always accepted responsibility for his actions, but those actions were not a crime.
The jury had to decide what a “reasonable” person would do in four or five tragic seconds, the time Weller’s car traveled from 4th Street and Arizona to the entrance of the farmers’ market. That is less time than it took to read the last sentence. Weller was seen by witnesses desperately trying to stop. But the car did not stop and in fact, rapidly accelerated because he was mistakenly pressing the wrong pedal and was completely unaware of his mistake. Would a reasonable person steer into parked cars, or would he try to stop the car in the way he had stopped his car 100,000 times before, by pressing on the brakes? I believe Weller did just what any reasonable person would do. He tried to avoid all obstacles and did what he thought would stop the car – press the brake. And when that did not stop the car, he tried to brake over and over and over again.
I certainly disagree with the jury’s decision, but it really doesn’t matter whether we disagree or agree on the verdict. We should all agree there is absolutely no societal purpose to sending Russ Weller to jail. But I wonder if the psychology of revenge is motivating some of the harsh reactions I have read about this case. As a high school student attending a large, urban high school, I often see in others the desire to strike back at nearly every perceived offense. At school, they are usually petty affronts. With this terrible accident, I have to ask myself if my family lost a loved one, would I want revenge? I suspect I might cloth my revenge in more acceptable terms like “justice,” but I hope I would see past any feeling for revenge and recognize, in an accident like this, everyone is a victim. This was undoubtedly a horrendous accident. But Weller had no intention of hitting the people or even hurting one soul.
We have to ask ourselves, what threat does an 89-year-old man who, at this point, cannot walk, has extremely poor health, rarely leaves his house and is under constant care of nurses and doctors, pose to our community? Weller lives everyday knowing what he did and the lives he damaged. He has apologized many times. I believe he should not be put in jail for this mistake, made while he was trying desperately to do the right thing. Because it was just that – an accident.
Is jail, rather than probation, a just sentence for a war veteran, community member and solid citizen, who never even so much as had a traffic ticket in 70 years of driving? We all have sincere compassion for the people who were injured and families of those killed. But what happened to Weller could have happened to most anybody and was completely unforeseeable. It was no more predictable than a heart attack in a person without symptoms, a stroke or a seizure. It was an accident and not a crime.
Nicolas Borenstein is an 11th grader at Samohi.