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'I'm not a murderer,' train crash defendant says

He testifies to 'being stupid' in Glendale wreck that killed 11.

June 04, 2008|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

Juan Manuel Alvarez testified Tuesday that he expected to be punished for causing a deadly Metrolink crash three years ago, but said prosecutors were unfairly trying to depict him as a murderer.

"I'm not expecting to come out of here," Alvarez said under sharp questioning from the prosecutor. "I'm just expecting to come out with something fair. I'm not an assassin. I'm not a terrorist. I'm not a murderer. That's how you're trying to make me look . . . like a monster."

On Jan. 26, 2005, Alvarez of Compton parked his sport utility vehicle on the tracks in Glendale, causing a Metrolink passenger train to derail, hit a parked freight train and then collide with an oncoming passenger train. Eleven people were killed and 180 injured in the crash.

Alvarez, 29, faces charges of first-degree murder and one count each of train-wrecking and arson. He could face the death penalty if convicted. Tuesday marked his fifth day on the witness stand.

An acknowledged drug addict, Alvarez had testified that he was trying to commit suicide but changed his mind moments before the train slammed into his vehicle. Prosecutors allege that Alvarez's actions were willful and intended to cause death and destruction.

In testimony Tuesday, Alvarez reiterated that he never intended to harm others.

"It was an accident," he said, "a stupid mistake."

"You don't want to be convicted, do you?" Deputy Dist. Atty. John Monaghan asked.

"Nobody wants to," Alvarez responded.

"You don't want to take responsibility," Monaghan said. "You want to walk out of here, don't you?"

When asked by Monaghan what crime he was guilty of, Alvarez said he was culpable of "being stupid" and of trespassing.

During his cross-examination, Monaghan also challenged Alvarez's testimony that he was unaware of the dangers of parking his vehicle on railway tracks.

And the prosecutor sought to cast doubt on Alvarez's statements that he had doused himself with gas in an attempt to burn himself. Instead, prosecutors have alleged that Alvarez used the gas to ensure that the train caught fire when it crashed.

In other testimony Tuesday, Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist called by defense attorneys, said she examined Alvarez in jail for more than two hours in April and determined that the defendant fit the profile of someone who was prone to paranoia, chronically distressed and had "impulsive suicidal" tendencies.

Firestone, who has specialized in the motives and treatment of suicide for 25 years, also testified that Alvarez's "self-destructive thoughts" were not consistent with someone who would premeditate acts of violence.

But prosecutor Cathryn Brougham, who is trying the case with Monaghan, sought to attack Firestone's credibility, getting her to acknowledge that Alvarez knew she had come to interview him about his propensity to attempt suicide and therefore could have tailored his answers to appear more troubled than he really was.

Firestone also acknowledged that she did not take notes or record her interview with Alvarez.

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ann.simmons@latimes.com

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