Lawyers Question Death Penalty in Train Wreck Case

Seeking death penalty in train wreck would be unusual, lawyers say (SF Chronicle)

The capital murder charges filed Thursday against a driver accused of causing a fatal Los Angeles-area train wreck are a rare and perhaps unprecedented use of a century-old California law. The law, passed in 1905, makes it a capital crime to derail a train and cause death. It is the basis of the “special circumstances” — the factors that make a crime eligible for the death penalty — in the charges filed against Juan Manuel Alvarez by Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley.

Two court analysts said the charges appear to be legally sound but may be difficult to prove, and raise questions about the prosecutor’s priorities in a case involving a suspect who police say was possibly suicidal. “In my view, capital cases should be reserved for the intentional (killing),” said Rory Little, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco and a former federal prosecutor. “It doesn’t sound like this guy had any purpose to kill anybody else.” Gerald Uelmen, a law professor at Santa Cara University and a criminal defense lawyer, said seeking the death penalty against Alvarez would be “kind of crazy.” “Here’s a guy trying to commit suicide, botches it, kills a bunch of people, so now we’ll help him (kill himself),” he said. “There’s a question of whether you want to use the limited resources of the system and your office to put one more person on death row.”

Cooley said Thursday no decision has been made on whether to seek a death sentence or life in prison without parole. He also said he wasn’t certain Alvarez was suicidal.

To get a conviction of murder by train wrecking, prosecutors need to prove only that Alvarez intended to derail the train, not that he intended to injure or kill anyone. Even if his original intent was suicide, a jury could still decide that his actions reflected an intent to derail the train, Little said. The law assumes that “a person intends the foreseeable consequence of his actions,” the Hastings professor said. “You intend to derail if you leave a car on the tracks, whether you thought about it or not.”

Little has it exactly right. The question, it seems to me, is whether Alvarez was sane under the law, not whether these murders were the intended outcome of his action. If one sprays a building with machinegun fire to express outrage at its owners, one is liable for the people who die as a result even if their murder was not the aim. Similarly, that parking an SUV on a train track could be dangerous for the occupants of the train is something that an average 1o-year-old would understand. If sane, Alvarez is a murderer.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. phinsup says:

    If he has an IQ above 50 he knows that parking a car on train tracks will cause death and destruction. The families that lost loved ones won’t get them back. It may provide some peace of mind knowing that he’ll suffer knowing his days are coming to an end. One final thing, why does it cost thousands to execute someone when you can purchase a bullet for pennies?

  2. DC Loser says:

    I’m not a lawyer but here goes a possible defense. If you watch enough TV and Hollywood movies, they always show cars being hit by trains. How many times have those trains that hit a car derailed? Most contests between cars and trains are very one sided. Certainly the defense can argue that according to popular culture, you don’t see too many trains suffering from these encounters.

  3. BigFire says:

    According to new radio this morning, Alvarez’s wounds are caused AFTER the train crashes. A woman who witnessed the attempted suicide call 911, and the cops picked him up in the hospital. This could potentially screw up his only defense, insanity.

  4. lunacy says:

    As a matter of fact, I had a car hit by a train and it did not turn out anything like tragedy in Los Angeles.

    It was many years ago on an extremely foggy night by Mobile Bay when my front tire went off a very deep shoulder of the road while crossing a railroad track. It left my car’s axle balanced on the edge of the asphalt and the track, my wheel dangling a good foot and a half above the ground. I tried to build up the space, stuffed logs, debris, piled gravel, anything to bridge the gap between my front tire and the ground. I even thought of jacking the car up, lifting the chassis off the pavement and giving it a good shove, but my husband persuaded me it was too hazardous with the ground so loose. And we’d never have the force necessary to get the wheel onto the pavement. We got all of our important belonging from the vehicle, stacked them under a street light by a nearby wharehouse and waited for the inevitable.

    The cargo train came. We hollered in hopes of warning them. Then we watched as our little old Toyota went screeching down the track, sparks lighting up the front of the train with a fiery rooster tail.

    The car was pushed about 100 yards down the track before the train stopped. CSX Officers were at the scene in no time. They threated to sue for damages if any were sustained. We were lucky in that regard. The train received no serious damage, nor did the tracks. Only our tiny Toyota was crushed beyond recognition.


  5. McGehee says:

    If he has an IQ above 50 he knows that parking a car on train tracks will cause death and destruction.

    He would certainly have to have known of the possibility, DCL’s proposed defense notwithstanding (does California even still pay so much as lip service to the “reasonable person” test?).

    The families that lost loved ones won’t get them back.

    This would have been true even if the derailment and associated deaths had resulted from a genuine accident. It isn’t necessarily material.

  6. Bithead says:

    Let’s say for the sake of argument, that this was done as an act of terrorism.

    The death penalty would be imposed.

    Or would it? Can terrorists who commit such an act be considered sane, I wonder?

    Hey, I dunno, just firin’ stuff out there…

  7. Attila Girl says:

    This wasn’t a little car; it was a big SUV.

    I understand that the man was suicidal, but I’m having trouble feeling sympathy: if you want to off yourself, go do it where you won’t harm others (beyond them having to deal with the brains splattered in your shower stall or car, whatever).

    Just don’t take anyone with you. Is that such a f**king difficult concept?