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Elderly Driver Could Face Manslaughter Charges in Market Fatalities

By Jorge Casuso

Dec. 17 -- Police have asked the District Attorney to file as many as 10 manslaughter charges against Russell Weller, the elderly driver who plowed through a crowded farmers market five months ago killing 10 and leaving 63 injured, police announced Wednesday.

After a "thorough investigation" by the SMPD and the California Highway Patrol that culminated in a 917-page report, police concluded that Weller was driving at unsafe speeds and did not attempt to brake or take the car out of gear, said Police Chief James T. Butts, Jr.

"Weller was conscious throughout the collision sequence" that stretched 1,000 feet, Butts said at a press conference staged to coincide with the live 5 p.m. newscasts. "There was no evidence of braking.

"He was at least negligent in his operation of the motor vehicle," Butts said. "He should have been aware of his condition."

The DA could charge Weller with voluntary manslaughter if he acted with intent or involuntary manslaughter if he acted with negligence, Butts said. It could also file a different charge or file no charge at all.

The DA is expected to make a decision within a few weeks, said Deputy District Attorney John Lynch.

In a statement issued shortly before the conference, Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said his office "had prosecutors present at the crime scene within the first few hours and has been reviewing reports and interviewing hundreds of witnesses since then."

Weller's attorney, Jim Bianco, said the 87-year-old driver shouldn't face charges, according to press reports.

"We're anxious to see the report because we've conducted our own extensive investigation and concluded this was a tragic, terrible accident," Bianco said. "There was no intent to hurt anyone, no negligence and no crime."

He added that Weller, who has been in and out of the hospital three times since the accident, "suffers every minute of every day knowing that he was driving that car.

"The aftermath of the accident has taken a dreadful toll on him and his family," Bianco said. "He is emotionally drained and lives with the effects of the tragedy every minute of every day."

Butts outlined the events that led up to one of the worst accidents in Santa Monica's history.

Before embarking on his deadly ride July 16, Weller had deposited a letter at the post office on 5th Street before driving 260 feet and making a right turn onto Arizona Avenue, Butts said.

A female motorist in a Mercedes was stopped in front of Weller's 1992 Buick LaSabre, Butts said. After the traffic light turned green, she pulled forward preparing to make a right turn, but stopped for a pedestrian.

Weller's Buick slowed but did not stop, hitting the rear of the Mercedes and pushing it onto the crosswalk, before accelerating rapidly towards the first victim, a pedestrian on crutches near the "road closed" sign, Butts said.

"The pedestrian was thrown a distance of approximately 60 feet," he said.

According to the report, "pedal misapplication provides the best explanation for acceleration of the Buick upon impact with the Mercedes," Butts said, adding that the brake would have worked.

"Mr. Weller had medical conditions that included reduced mobility and is considered a contributing factor."

After 100 separate collisions, the Buick came to a stop 1,000 feet away with a final victim pinned underneath, Butts said.

Legal experts have said they did not expect Weller to be charged with murder, but that he could face charges of vehicular manslaughter, which under California law is defined as killing someone with a vehicle while committing another crime.

Vehicular manslaughter convictions usually result from offenses such as speeding, fleeing the scene of a crash or driving while on a cell phone, according to legal experts.

If it is determined that the crash was caused by "accident and misfortune" no charges would be filed, experts said.

Weller -- who has had his driving license suspended -- also is expected to face civil lawsuits, although his auto insurance will not compensate all victims involved.

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