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Jury spares killer’s life in rail crash

Times Staff Writers

Ending a legal saga surrounding the deadliest train crash in Metrolink history, a Los Angeles jury decided Tuesday to spare the life of a former Compton laborer convicted of triggering the 2005 wreck that killed 11 people and injured at least 180 others.

Juan Manuel Alvarez, 29, smiled broadly and spoke quietly to a member of his defense team after the verdict was read in a packed downtown courtroom. Under the jury’s verdict, Alvarez will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Alberto Romero -- whose uncle, Leonardo Romero, was killed in the crash -- said he watched Alvarez’s reaction to the verdicts with disgust.

“From the beginning, he’s had a smirk on his face,” Romero said. “He shows no remorse whatsoever. And just as he showed no remorse, there should be no remorse for . . . him in prison.”

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Many of the victims’ relatives who attended Tuesday’s verdict said they were relieved that Alvarez would never be released from prison. Some, however, said they believed he deserved the death penalty.

Thomas W. Kielty, one of Alvarez’s two court-appointed attorneys, said his client was still “haunted with remorse” but has tried to stay focused in recent months on the legal issues involved in his trial.

Alvarez’s smile at Tuesday’s verdict was one of relief because he was spared the death penalty, Kielty said, adding, “I would say he’s emotionally overwhelmed.”

Jurors, who had wept days earlier as victims’ relatives testified about their loss, reached their decision after deliberating for less than 3 1/2 hours. The same panel of nine women and three men last month found Alvarez guilty on 11 counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson.

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The tragedy unfolded in the early hours of Jan. 26, 2005, when Alvarez parked his sport utility vehicle on railroad tracks near Glendale and fled. A Metrolink passenger train plowed into the vehicle, struck a parked freight train and slammed into an oncoming commuter train.

Prosecutors had argued that Alvarez intended to kill commuters as part of a sick attempt to gain attention from his estranged wife. But defense attorneys described Alvarez’s actions as part of an aborted suicide attempt that never meant to harm anyone else.

Speaking after Tuesday’s verdict, the jury’s foreman said he believed Alvarez had never intended to kill anyone but had meant to cause a spectacular crash.

“He wanted to make a statement. He expected his Jeep would be blown up, obliterated,” said the 27-year-old foreman, who was among three jurors who agreed to speak with reporters but declined to give their names.

The jury foreman explained that the panel convicted Alvarez of first-degree murder using the state’s felony murder rule. Under California law, a person can be charged with first-degree murder if they have committed a serious felony, such as arson, that resulted in someone else’s death, even if they never intended to kill anyone.

Another juror, a 61-year-old retiree, told reporters that there had been “a terrible amount of emotion” during deliberations and “we did argue a lot.” He said he believed that Alvarez had gotten “shortchanged” in life and that the man’s abusive upbringing had taken a psychological toll on him.

A third juror said he suffered sleepless nights after the testimony of victims’ relatives. He acknowledged that he had initially been leaning more toward the death penalty for Alvarez.

“The struggle was more emotional,” said the juror, a 39-year-old who works for the county Department of Health Services. “I feel he needed to pay with death because people did die, but I [felt] I should follow the law and not lead with emotions.”

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During the eight-week trial, prosecutors had portrayed Alvarez as a liar and a schemer who was obsessed with getting attention.

They rejected the suggestion that he had been trying to commit suicide.

Prosecutors had urged the jury not to forget the victims and the effect of their deaths on family members.

Defense attorneys stressed that Alvarez was a troubled man who was raised in an abusive home and has struggled throughout his life with drug and mental health problems.

Todd McKeown, whose brother Scott was killed in the crash, said he had been leaning toward the death penalty but respected the jury’s decision. “It’s closure, it’s an answer, it’s a finality to this part of the process,” said McKeown, who attended almost all of the proceedings.

Deputy Dist. Atty. John Monaghan said he was not disappointed with the verdict, and praised the jury’s tenacity. He said the case had been particularly difficult because it “wasn’t clear-cut.” But at least “they did not find that he was simply a misguided person,” Monaghan said.

Kielty said the jury’s decision to spare his client’s life was the right one.

“I think they had some compassion and humanity, and they reasoned that it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to kill someone who himself didn’t have an intent to kill,” he said.

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Alvarez’s wife, Carmelita, said she was relieved, but “I still don’t believe it’s justice. I think he belongs in a mental institution.”

She added that she would eventually tell the couple’s children, ages 7 and 10, that their father had been unfairly convicted.

Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders is scheduled to sentence Alvarez on Aug. 20.

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ann.simmons@latimes.com

jack.leonard@latimes.com


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