LOS ANGELES — Defense attorneys told jurors on Thursday they should not sentence Juan Manuel Alvarez to death, owing mostly to the rabid abuse he experienced as a child and remorse he showed after the incident, exemplified by a phone message that he left for his cousin shortly after the 2005 train wreck.
In a brief message played during the penalty phase in the Los Angeles Superior Court room, a sobbing Alvarez, now 29, told Beto Alvarez: “I didn’t mean to do this, Beto. A lot of innocent people died. I don’t deserve to live, Beto. I apologize for everything.” The recording was made at 6:17 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2005, minutes after the train derailment.
Also on the message, Alvarez told the landlady of his Atwater Village apartment that he wanted to die.
Alvarez was found guilty June 26 for parking his sport utility vehicle on a set of train tracks near Glendale’s Chevy Chase crossing, leading to the catastrophic Metrolink derailment that killed 10 passengers as well as one train conductor and injured more than 180 people.
The nine-woman, three-man panel convicted Alvarez of 11 counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson, along with the special circumstance of multiple murders that opened the door for prosecutors — who objected to the recording being played in court — to seek the death penalty.
“He knows he’s leaving a recorded message,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Cathryn Brougham said.
“It was self-serving. The defense shouldn’t be allowed to get this evidence in because it’s simply not reliable.”
Judge William R. Pounders allowed the message to be played to counter the emotionally charged testimony of dozens of victims’ family members who testified earlier this week, during which many jurors cried.
Pounders said he has presided over nearly 20 death penalty cases, including last year’s trial of serial killer Chester Turner, and “I’ve never been so emotionally affected by evidence. This tends to counteract that to some extent.”
Jurors seemed physically unmoved by the brief recording, which was preceded by defense attorney Michael Belter’s request to the jury that when they deliberate between sentencing Alvarez to death or life without the possibility of parole, they decide rationally and without influence from their peers.
“We’re all human,” Belter said. “To be able to put aside our feelings is an almost impossible task. You’re to use your own judgment and your own feelings and thought processes.”
Belter also told the panel that death is not the appropriate consequence for Alvarez, who he said was addled by drugs and suffered under the heavy hand of his abusive father as a child in Mexicali, Mexico.
Beto Alvarez testified on Thursday, as he did during the trial, of the rampant abuse and terror Juan Alvarez experienced and of his cousin’s ensuing suicide attempts as a result of the abuse.
During one instance, Beto Alvarez said his grandmother was riding a bus when she noticed an adolescent Juan Alvarez lying in the middle of the street in Mexico, hoping the bus would drive over him. The grandmother stopped the bus, exited the vehicle and picked up Juan Alvarez, briefly looking after him.
Years later, Beto Alvarez, who said he was beaten by his alcoholic mother as a child in Mexicali, cared for Juan Alvarez and his sister, Cynthia Alvarez, in the United States.
“I saw him having the same kind of life I had,” Beto Alvarez said. “That’s why I offered to have them live with me. At least they weren’t going to be abused; they weren’t going to be beat. This was an opportunity for them to get better. They’re American citizens, and they would be better with me.”
But Juan Alvarez, after breaking a bone while working on a construction site for his cousin, descended down a spiral of hallucinations and mood swings from an addiction to methamphetamine, which played a role in him parking his SUV that was later crushed by a Metrolink train in 2005, Beto Alvarez said.
“We noticed a change in his attitude,” he said. “It’s what I call a transformation of his life.”
The defense is expected to continue calling witnesses today, and the penalty phase could conclude next week.
The following is the translation of a voice message left in Spanish and English by Juan Manuel Alvarez to his cousin Beto Alvarez and landlady Reyna Barcena at 6:17 a.m. Jan. 26, 2005:”
Juan Alvarez: Beto take good care of my kids for me, Beto
Tell them that I have always loved them
I always loved them
Take care of my wife for me, Beto
I didn’t mean to do this, Beto
A lot of innocent people died
I don’t deserve to live, Beto
I apologize for everything
Please pray for me, please . . . so God would
Sounds (He’s sobbing and doing something)
Juan Alvarez: No Reyna, I want to die.
Reyna Barcena: No you have to, you have to, come on.
Juan Alvarez: I would rather die, Reyna.
JEREMY OBERSTEIN covers business, politics and the foothills. He may be reached at (818) 637-3215 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.