LOS ANGELES — Emotionally charged testimony by co-workers and family members of victims who died in a 2005 Metrolink train crash marked the first day of the penalty phase against Juan Manuel Alvarez on Monday, highlighted by tearful jurors and loud weeping from those sitting in the packed courtroom.
Alvarez, 29, was convicted of 11 counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson on June 26 for his role in the Jan. 26, 2005, Metrolink derailment that injured 184 crew members and passengers. Officials said the incident was one of the worst train crashes in history.
Jurors must now choose between sentencing Alvarez to life in prison without the possibility of parole, or to death, which Deputy Dist. Atty. Cathryn Brougham said was the proper punishment.
“We’re going to ask you to impose the greater punishment, a punishment of death,” Brougham told the nine-woman, six-man jury. “It won’t be an easy decision, and I’m not saying it will be pleasant, but I am asking you to make the right decision. You’re here to do the right thing.”
Brougham reminded jurors that each one of them had said in June, via the jury questionnaire they completed before being selected to serve, they would not be averse to imposing the death penalty if they felt the circumstances of the crime warranted such a sentence.
After hearing from witnesses, jurors will be asked to consider 12 factors while deliberating between life and death for Alvarez, including the circumstances of the crime and the impact to the victims and their surviving family members.
To that end, Brougham flicked through a series of pictures portraying the 11 train crash victims with their families during celebratory moments and showing grisly pictures of their mangled and bloodied bodies after the crash.
Sobbing family members in the audience punctuated Brougham’s presentation, forcing her to pause at one point.
Jurors could also be seen dabbing at tears and passing a tissue box around the rectangular jury box.
“I don’t remember this much emotion being involved,” said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders, who last year presided over the capital murder case of Chester Turner, who was sentenced to death for killing 10 women. “Almost all the jurors are crying. They’re having a tough time.”
Pounders reminded jurors to base their deliberations on “rational decisions,” and not on emotions that defined the day’s testimony, which started with recollections from Maureen Tutino, mother of James Tutino.
James Tutino, 47, died aboard the Metrolink train No. 100 while en route to work.
He was a 17-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and rarely took the train to work, Maureen Tutino said.
“It was raining, and his knee was bothering him,” she said. “He drove a stick shift, and he didn’t want to drive and put on more miles in his car.”
Shortly after the crash, Sheriff Lee Baca called Maureen Tutino, telling her that James was dead.
Hysterical and weeping, she called her other son, Anthony Tutino, screaming the news into the phone as shock swept over the family.
“I couldn’t understand it at first,” said Anthony Tutino, fighting back tears on the stand.
“He never took the train. I really didn’t believe her. The hardest part for me was that I never got to say goodbye to my brother. I had to say goodbye through a coffin. I will regret that for the rest of my life.”
Linda Gordon, mother of train-crash victim Julia Bennett, followed testimony from the Tutino family, telling jurors of her daughter’s altruism and inherent kindness.
“She was always up and so full of heart,” Gordon said. “There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do for someone.”
Bennett’s father died three months after the crash, apparently unable to cope with the absence of his daughter, her brother Gregory Gordon said.
“When my father passed, that was without a doubt because of a broken heart,” he said.
“It’s taken a large chunk out of our lives.”
Bennett’s daughter, Lyndsie Bennett, also testified, telling jurors her relationship with her mother was “as close as you can get.”
“I miss talking to her, not being able to graduate without her seeing, not being able to call her,” she said as tears streamed down her cheeks. “She was an incredible person.”
Family members of Manuel Alcala also took the stand Monday, including his wife, Patricia Alcala.
Their son, Alex Alcala, died after the crash, a victim of a slew of illnesses and an inability to deal with his father’s loss, she said.
“I went through his journal and I read a part that said, ‘I don’t know if I told my dad he was my hero, I don’t know if I told my dad how much I loved him,’” Patricia Alcala said.
Prosecutors are expected to call more victims’ family members today and are slated to wrap up their side of the penalty phase Wednesday afternoon, at which point the defense could begin calling their witnesses.
Defense attorneys said they will call about a dozen people, including Alvarez’s relatives and psychological and education experts to testify about the abuse Alvarez suffered as a child and of his behavior in jail.
Jurors are expected to view rail cars today in Glendale that were involved in the 2005 Metrolink train crash as part of the penalty phase against Alvarez.
Prosecutors are expected to call more victims’ family members in wrapping up their side of the penalty phase today. Defense attorneys will call their first witness on Thursday and another dozen people during their portion of testimony.
Alvarez’s relatives as well as psychological and education experts will testify about the abuse Alvarez suffered as a child and about his behavior in jail.