Train-wreck charges remain

Judge denies defense attorneys’ claims that evidence against man accused of causing crash is insufficient.

April 05, 2008|By Jeremy Oberstein

GLENDALE — A judge on Thursday refused to dismiss charges against 29-year-old Juan Manuel Alvarez, who is accused of causing a 2005 Metrolink derailment that killed 11 people and injured nearly 200 others.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge David S. Wesley rebuffed defense attorneys’ claims that not enough evidence had been given to the court at a May 2005 pretrial hearing where Alvarez was ordered to stand trial.

Alvarez was charged with 11 counts of murder with special circumstances and one count each of arson and train wrecking. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty against Alvarez, who has been held without bail in Men’s Central Jail since he was arrested following the Jan. 26, 2005, crash.


After the hearing on Thursday, defense attorney Thomas Kielty admitted that the motion to dismiss the charges was a long shot but contended that prosecutors do not have enough evidence to prove Alvarez is culpable.

“Everything that [Deputy Dist. Atty. John] Monaghan said Thursday was based on his interpretations of what was going on in Juan’s head,” he said. “He’s saying it wasn’t suicide.”

The defense claims that when Alvarez parked his Jeep Cherokee on the train tracks in Glendale, he was trying to commit suicide, stemming from a traumatic childhood and addiction to methamphetamine.

But due to an apparent change of heart, shortly before a southbound Metrolink train plowed into his SUV, derailed and crashed into a northbound Metrolink train at the border of Glendale and Los Angeles, Alvarez tried to move off the track, Kielty said.

“He tried to get it free, but he could not get the front wheels back over the rail,” the defense wrote in their motion. “He was unable to do anything else. In the final seconds before the collision, Mr. Alvarez lept from his car.”

But in their rebuttal motion, prosecutors rejected the suicide claim and maintained Alvarez was liable for the carnage.

“Not only is there a complete lack of evidence that defendant Alvarez intended to commit suicide, there is no evidence that he changed his mind or abandoned his plans to kill himself,” they wrote. Defense attorneys Kielty and Michael Belter plan to present “a mountain of evidence” during the trial, including tire treads that show Alvarez tried to reverse his car, in the hopes they can overcome the emotional undercurrent of a case that has galvanized public interest, Kielty said.

“What we have here is 11 dead bodies and 180 injuries and a lot of shock and a lot of hatred,” Kielty said.

Last week, prospective jurors were asked to complete a 23-page questionnaire that asked about their feelings on the death penalty and how much they knew about the crash that has continued to garner significant media attention.

Attorneys are set to meet Wednesday to hammer out last-minute evidence details and whittle away at the jury pool in anticipation of an April 14 session where the defense and prosecution will further question the dwindling number of prospective jurors.

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