Defense starts closing its case

LOS ANGELES — Defense attorneys started their closing arguments Thursday in the case against Juan Manuel Alvarez, telling jurors that he never intended to kill anyone, and that prosecutors’ attempts to portray Alvarez as an arsonist belie his true intent: suicide.

Alvarez is charged with 11 counts of murder with special circumstances and one count each of felony murder, train-wrecking and arson for his role in the Jan. 26, 2005, Metrolink crash that left 11 dead and 184 others injured.

“Juan is not a murderer,” his attorney Thomas Kielty said. “It’s about as clear a case as I’ve ever seen. There was no intent to kill, and there was no intent to commit train wrecking or arson.

“The only intent Mr. Alvarez had before he changed his mind was to kill himself.”

Scores of family members whose relatives were killed in the 2005 derailment sat in court Thursday.

“What happened here was an absolute tragedy,” said Kielty, facing the families before turning to the nine-woman, three-man jury. “But those heavy, emotionally laden feelings . . . have nothing to do with your jobs. Your job is to see if the government has proven these charges beyond all reasonable doubt — 100%. That’s a very high standard.”

Earlier in the day, prosecutors told jurors Alvarez had confessed to second-degree murder before the nearly eight-week trial began.

During an interview in jail with mental health expert Mace Beckson, Alvarez said he knew he was doomed when his Jeep Cherokee would not budge from the train tracks, Dist. Atty. John Monaghan said.

Alvarez told Beckson he “just sat there and decided to get hit by the train,” Monaghan said.

With the admission, Alvarez confessed to committing “an act of conscious disregard of human life,” Monaghan said.

“The trigger had already been pulled, and when you pull that trigger, there’s a point of no return,” he said.

Defense attorneys, who are slated to continue their closing statements Monday, have long contended that the 2005 derailment was a rare confluence of events that can be traced back to Alvarez’s failed suicide attempt.

Alvarez told jurors on May 27 that he decided to kill himself the morning of the crash, after imagining that his wife was taunting him from the back of his Jeep.

He testified that he doused himself with gasoline and drove onto the tracks hoping an oncoming train would hit his SUV and end his life.

“Juan Alvarez is damaged goods,” Kielty said. “I’m not trying to be insulting, but it’s the truth.”

Kielty pointed to years of abuse at the hands of his father and other family members growing up in Mexicali, Mexico, as proof of Alvarez’s troubled life.

Monaghan, hearkening back to several witnesses’ testimony near the beginning of the trial, told jurors that Alvarez’s supposed suicidal tendencies and contentions that he poured gasoline on himself were concocted to evade prosecution.

“When mental health professionals were around, Mr. Alvarez would act different,” Monaghan said.

“He would bang his head against the wall and act crazy. Mr. Alvarez knows how to turn it on. He will tell anybody anything at any point in time. He believes he can manipulate everyone.”

But despite the turbulence that marked his youth, Alvarez was not responsible for the derailment on Jan. 26, 2005, which “was one of the worst train accidents in history,” Kielty said.

“Gasoline did not cause the derailment, and the fire did not cause the deaths,” he said.

“There is no dispute about that. This was a chain reaction caused by Mr. Alvarez, but what caused the deaths of 11 people was the train smashing into his car, going from about 50 mph to 0. The whole issue of arson is just a distraction.”

Defense attorneys are scheduled to end their closing arguments at 9:30 a.m. Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, after which the case will be handed to jurors for deliberation.


 JEREMY OBERSTEIN covers business, politics and the foothills. He may be reached at (818) 637-3215 or by e-mail at jeremy.oberstein@latimes.com.

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