Lawyers Question Death Penalty in Train Wreck Case
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.