Jury Convicts Elderly California Driver of Manslaughter

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Three years ago, 89-year-old George Weller drove his car through the Santa Monica Farmers Market, killing 10 people and injuring more than 60. Weller's attorneys argued that it was an accident. But the jury still convicted him on 10 counts of manslaughter.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A judge here in Los Angeles says an 89-year-old man who killed 10 people when his car plowed into a farmer's market should go to prison. But because of his frail health, the judge is placing him on five years' probation.

NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: George Weller is just a month shy of his 90th birthday and - according to his doctors - in such poor health, he couldn't be in court to hear his punishment.

He was convicted last month of driving his car through the crowds at the Santa Monica Farmers Market three years ago.

Judge MICHAEL JOHNSON (Superior Court Judge, Los Angeles County): I'm convinced that Mr. Weller deserves to go to prison.

DEL BARCO: While Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson said he agreed with the jury's guilty verdict, he said he would not be sending Weller to prison, because that would mean taxpayers would be paying to treat his severe heart disease and other illnesses.

Defense attorneys had argued that Weller mistook his car's accelerator for the brake. But Johnson cited Weller's own remarks to witnesses. After plowing to the open-air market at freeway speeds, he finally came to a stop with one man on the hood of his car and a woman under the wheels.

Judge JOHNSON: In plain sight of all this, Mr. Weller says, just think how I felt. And why didn't you get out of my way?

DEL BARCO: Johnson sentenced Weller to five years probation and ordered him to pay more than $100,000 in fines and restitution to his victims.

Judge JOHNSON: I will simply never understand Mr. Weller's indifference to the victims in this case.

DEL BARCO: George Weller may not have been in court, but the family of one of his victims was there to express their grief over the death of Lynne Weaver, a 47-year-old daughter-in-law of the late TV star Dennis Weaver.

Ms. JENNIFER WEAVER (Daughter of Lynne Weaver): Mr. Weller today is a coward for not showing up to listen to what all of us have to say. He took my mom's away.

DEL BARCO: Jennifer Weaver told the court she was hoping Weller would serve some prison time, despite his age.

Ms. WEAVER: Mr. Weller needs the maximum punishment. And if that's life in prison, then it's life in prison. If it's the death penalty, then so be it. She was struck down by a car buying flowers while working at a nonprofit organization, doing good for her community.

DEL BARCO: Weaver's husband, Robert, asked for a face-to-face apology.

Mr. ROBERT WEAVER (Husband of Lynne Weaver): It would have meant a great deal to me, and I believe others, to look in his eyes and to hear him simply say I'm sorry.

DEL BARCO: Defense Attorney Mark Overland told reporters his client had made a tragic mistake, but not a crime. And he said Weller was a stoic man who had a hard time expressing his emotions. Overland insisted Weller had apologized repeatedly since the tragedy three years ago, though perhaps not in so many words to the victims.

Mr. MARK OVERLAND (Attorney): We have an individual who went from a very lively, gregarious octogenarian into somebody who lives in virtual seclusion, who constantly, day after day after day is haunted by what happened and feels remorse.

DEL BARCO: Overland said Weller doesn't remember much of the incident and doesn't completely understand the consequences. Defense attorney Mark Borenstein said just before the sentencing, he visited Weller, who is now confined to his bed and is under constant care.

Mr. MARK BORENSTEIN (Attorney): He told me, Mark, never mind about me. It is about the people I'd hurt, and I pray for them.

DEL BARCO: Instead of spending 18 years in prison, George Weller is now confined to his house for five years, and he still faces a civil suit. That trial isn't scheduled to begin till sometime next spring, nearly four years after the tragedy.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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