Friday, January 28, 2005

A real-life law school exam question

Juan Manuel Alvarez, who parked his SUV on railroad tracks in Los Angeles and caused a train crash that killed 11 people Wednesday, will face capital murder charges. A story in today's San Francisco Chronicle says prosecutors could pursue the death penalty under a century-old California law that makes it a capital offense "to derail a train and cause death."

I link to this story to raise the question of whether it's proper to seek the death penalty in a case like this one, where police believe the man to have been suicidal but to have harbored no intent to kill anyone else. My gut instinct says the death penalty should be reserved for killers who mean for their actions to result in death, but it's still very much unclear what Alvarez intended in this case.

If the police's beliefs are indeed the correct version of the story and if Alvarez wasn't insane at the time, his level of mental culpability would have been either "knowing" or "reckless" -- enough to justify a life sentence, but not enough to justify death. Then again, it's hard to conceive that a guy could leave his SUV parked across train tracks and not intend for chaos to ensue.

I'm also quite sympathetic to the societal consideration expressed -- perhaps in jest -- by UC Hastings law professor Rory Little, who gets the honor of concluding this post: "You need to charge train wrecking, if you can, because we want suicidal people to stay away from railroad tracks. If you're suicidal, jump off a bridge and don't endanger anybody else."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As you know, I'm a big death penalty supporter. In this case, however, it seems like we're getting a little too close to state assisted suicide. And, traditionally, we've had to show malice or at the very least forethought in capital murder cases – neither of which is present in this case.

I’d tread lightly here.


1:15 PM  
Blogger Alabamian said...

I think that once the understandable lynch-mob fury directed at this guy cools a little, the prosecutors probably won't end up pushing for the death penalty. Even if he were convicted and sentenced to death, a constitutional question would probably arise about whether the law violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

The story says the law allows a death sentence for someone who "derail[s] a train and cause[s] death." That wording, absent any other language related to mental state, would impose strict liability on the death component of the crime. That's not unheard of -- people who inadvertently cause death while committing a felony can be convicted of murder -- but it still raises some interesting issues in the death-penalty context, where both the act and the result typically have to be intended.

I'll be interested to see how this case plays out.

12:56 AM  

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