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Jury selection starts in train-crash case

Attorneys begin interviews to find 12 people to decide fate of man accused of causing 2005 Metrolink wreck.

March 26, 2008|By Jeremy Oberstein

LOS ANGELES — The first batch of what will be nearly 400 residents was called to the Criminal Courts Building in Downtown Los Angeles on Monday as attorneys began the laborious process of finding 16 jurors for the death penalty trial of Juan Manuel Alvarez, who is accused of causing the 2005 train wreck that left 11 dead and nearly 200 injured.

Alvarez, a Compton resident who was raised in Mexico, is charged with 11 counts of murder, one count of arson and one count of train wrecking in connection with the Jan. 26, 2005, crash that occurred when a Metrolink train crashed into his Jeep Cherokee that was left on the tracks.

Metrolink officials have called it the worst accident in its history.

More than 130 prospective jurors were called on Monday, a process that will be repeated Wednesday and Friday in an attempt to weed out residents who might not be able to attend the three-month trial and seat an untainted jury pool for a case that has already garnered significant media attention, Judge William R. Pounders said.

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Prospective jurors were asked to complete a 23-page questionnaire asking about their personal, educational and business background. The questionnaire also devoted a significant number of questions to their attitudes toward capital punishment, which Alvarez could face if he is found guilty.

All were asked to spend a significant amount of time poring through the inquiry that was designed to give attorneys a better idea of who potential jurors are.

But not all filled out the questionnaire, as Pounders excused more than two dozen residents due to conflicts of time, language barriers, health difficulties and potential economic hardships.

“In these hard economic times, I need every penny of overtime I can get,” said David Gallegos, a UPS driver whom Pounders excused. “I can’t afford to not work.”

As potential jurors were instructed about the questionnaire and any undue hardships that might prevent them from serving, Alvarez sat quietly in his chair dressed in a red flannel shirt and beige pants.

Though he chose to stay in his cell during past court dates — and would have been ordered to court had he opted not to attend another pre-trial hearing — Alvarez willingly showed up in court Monday, defense attorney Michael Belter said.

“He was anticipating this date and relieved it finally came,” he said.

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