Appellate panel considers conviction in 2005 train derailment

An attorney representing the man convicted of causing the 2005 Metrolink train derailment in Glendale that killed 11 people argued in court Tuesday that her client only intended to kill himself when he parked his gasoline-drenched SUV on the tracks.

His attorney, Tracy Dressner, told a panel of judges for the California 2nd District Court of Appeal that the facts presented during the prosecution of Juan Manuel Alvarez in Los Angeles County Superior Court didn’t support his conviction of first-degree murder and arson.

Alvarez was convicted of drenching his Jeep Cherokee in gasoline before parking it on the tracks on the border of Atwater and Glendale. He bailed out on his suicide attempt but left the Jeep on the tracks. The ensuing derailment sent rail cars into nearby Union Pacific train, killing 11 and injuring nearly 200. He was sentenced in 2008 to 11 consecutive life sentences in prison.

But Dressner argued some evidence — including testimony that pushing rail cars with an engine from behind makes them more susceptible to being pried off the tracks — that was not allowed in the murder trial could have contextualized the extent of the disaster for the jury. Had they known, she argued, they may have ruled differently.

The surviving train conductor, Dressner said, had testified that he expected to plow through the Jeep.

“There was no intention on [Alvarez’s] part to kill anybody in this,” she said.

But Dressner’s argument appeared to gain little traction with the appellate panel.

Presiding Justice Robert Mallano repeatedly noted that regardless of the chain of events after the derailment, “if the train wouldn’t have hit the car, nobody would have died.”

Dressner conceded that point in court, but said there was also a series of “improbable” variables — the oncoming Pacific Union freighter, the “push” mode of the Metrolink train — that Alvarez could not have anticipated.

But Justice Victoria Gerrard Chaney pointed out that at least two outcomes were guaranteed by parking the gas-drenched SUV on the tracks: destruction and/or a fireball.

“What is improbable?” she asked.

Deputy Atty. Gen. Noah Hill also argued that Alvarez — who has industrial welding experience —knew when he poured gasoline on his Jeep and the tracks that the train crash would ignite it.

The appellate panel is expected to issue an opinion within 90 days. If the panel overturns Alvarez’s conviction, he would likely be retried.

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