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Death For Derailer? No Way

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for and CBS News.

One train wreck after another.

Just because California prosecutors can seek the death penalty against Juan Manuel Alvarez doesn't mean they should. Labeling the man's failed suicide attempt a capital crime will monumentally complicate the criminal case against him and, in the end, almost certainly fail at trial or on appeal. Not because Alvarez hasn't already confessed to criminal conduct. But because his conduct and comments, and the comments of his family and law enforcement officials, already indicate that Alvarez did not have the type of murderous intent you need for a sound capital conviction.

We can agree that Alvarez acted wantonly, recklessly and without regard for the safety of others when he parked his car on busy train tracks at the height of rush hour. We can agree that he created a great risk of death or serious bodily injury; the best proof of that being the 11 deaths and hundreds of injuries his actions caused. We can agree that he was selfish and stupid and committed such gross negligence by getting his car stuck on the tracks that he deserves to be punished severely. But the death penalty? That's a different story. The death penalty is typically reserved for the most heinous of premeditated crimes, where the offender manifests murderous deliberation and intent.

Did Alvarez intend to commit murder when he parked his car on the tracks Wednesday? From all accounts, even those offered by the police who described him as "deranged," the answer right now is no.

"I think his intent at that time was to take his own life, but he changed his mind prior to the train actually striking this vehicle," Glendale police chief Randy G. Adams said just hours after the crash. Just because Alvarez apparently had second thoughts about taking his own life doesn't mean that he switched from suicidal thoughts to homicidal thoughts as he left his car. The law does not presume that transfer of intent.

What else do we know about the man? He cut his wrists and stabbed himself in the chest Wednesday morning, proof that he had other things on his mind aside from killing innocent commuters. His sister-in-law told a Spanish-language television network, "He was having problems with drugs and all that and was violent, and because of that he separated from" his estranged wife. The wife, Carmelita Alvarez, told a court several months ago during a restraining order hearing that the suspect was using drugs and that his drug use was creating hallucinations.

"He's carrying a lot of baggage," said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, and he "was rather astounded as to what the outcome was" of his conduct. Not so astounded, apparently, that he is unwilling or unable to cooperate with the police. Other law enforcement officials were far more sanguine about Alvarez's emotional state. "His despondency doesn't move me," said Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley. "The mere fact that he was a little upset or despondent doesn't mean he has a defense for anything."

Cooley's assessment is only partially accurate. Alvarez's state of mind doesn't excuse his conduct and there are plenty of men and women on death row who were "upset" when they committed murder. But Alvarez's mental state Wednesday and the way he manifested it does tend to "mitigate" as opposed to "aggravate" the circumstances surrounding the crime. And a death penalty case is all about mitigation versus aggravation. Just imagine what even a decent defense attorney will be able to do with the facts we already know to be true about Alvarez and what was, and was not, going through his mind when he parked his Jeep on those tracks.

Despite what Cooley now is saying, and despite the charges that already have been brought, this is not a first-degree murder case. It is not a death penalty case. It is an "implied malice" murder case or even an involuntary manslaughter case. An "implied malice" murder case comes about when someone dies as the result of the offender's reckless conduct. An involuntary manslaughter case comes about when someone dies as a result of the offender's criminal negligence. Alvarez was reckless. He was criminally negligent. These statutory crimes fit what he did and there are punishments that fit those crimes. None of those punishments include the death penalty.

If prosecutors persist in bringing capital charges against Alvarez, the case will bog down. There will be a lot of time and attention paid to the viability of the insanity defense. And even if Alvarez is not permitted to assert that defense, his conduct Wednesday, and the descriptions of it by the police who apprehended him, no doubt will weaken the prosecution's claim that Alvarez deserves the ultimate punishment for his crimes.

Prosecutors also have to decide whether this is the case they want to use to test the California law that recognizes a capital-case-inducing "special circumstance" whenever someone causes a death by train derailment. If Alvarez's main purpose in parking his car on the tracks was to kill himself – and if even that purpose evolved before the train hit the car – did California's legislators intend for capital punishment to apply? Wasn't the law created to punish people who park their cars on tracks for the primary purpose of derailing a train?

Not only that, isn't there something counterintuitive about pushing to execute someone who got into this mess in the first place because he was trying to commit suicide? Won't someone at trial suggest that a death sentence is precisely what Alvarez was hoping for in the first place, that to authorize the state to execute him would give him the satisfaction and the ending he initially was hoping for when he parked his Jeep? I'm sure that some of the family members of Alvarez's victims will ask prosecutors to push to keep him in prison rather than to allow him to exit his tortured life. It will be hard for prosecutors to ignore those pleas.

So here's what ought to happen – and probably will. By pushing the case to its outermost limits, prosecutors will put tremendous pressure on Alvarez to continue cooperating. That cooperation should, and perhaps will, generate a plea deal that guarantees Alvarez a long prison sentence but foregoes the possibility of capital punishment. The state saves the time and money it would take to prosecute a "deranged" man and Alvarez goes away, perhaps for the rest of his life. You heard it here first. A sad story that began with terrible judgment and temporary insanity doesn't have to continue that way.