Today jurors gave Juan Alvarez the gift of life 11 times over by sparing him the death penalty, instead sentencing him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. In June the panel had convicted Alvarez of first-degree murder for his role in the January, 2005 Metrolink train derailment that claimed 11 lives.
At the time the then-25-year-old Compton man told authorities he’d parked his Jeep on Metrolink tracks in Glendale as part of a planned suicide. If that was so, he beat death on that day too, by walking away from his vehicle -- although the cataclysmic crash that resulted claimed the lives of 10 commuters and a conductor.
On Monday, Deputy District Attorney John Monaghan had argued before the jury to sentence Alvarez to death. Department 101 of L.A.’s Criminal Courts Building, presided over by Judge William Pounders, was packed with family survivors of the victims (many wearing black rubber memorial wristbands), along with Glendale cops and members of the EMT crews who responded to the scene of carnage three and a half years ago.
“Mr. Alvarez cares about no one but himself,” the gray crew-cutted prosecutor told jurors. Monaghan described Alvarez as “an anti-social bully” who, even while in prison following the train wreck, has been busted for selling heroin, extorting money from inmates, secreting contraband razor blades in his clothing and trading away his anti-depression medication. Monaghan had concluded his Monday call for Alvarez’s death by showing photographs of all 11 train-wreck victims in the bloom of life – followed by the gruesome images of their twisted corpses.
Yet the jury only took three hours today to rule out execution. Jurors looked grim as they filed into a room that included Phil Spector-trial prosecutors Alan Jackson and Patrick Dixon, as well as deputy district attorneys Truc Do and Bobby Grace, who this morning had won double life sentences for Black Widows Helen Golay and Olga Rutterschmidt, the two elderly women who had been convicted in the murder-for-profit of two homeless men.
A collective sigh went up in the room when a court clerk announced that jurors had sentenced Alvarez to life without parole on Count One – everyone knew the remaining counts would carry ditto marks, and they did. Alvarez, wearing a charcoal gray dress shirt and tan Dockers, betrayed no emotion as the counts were read. Afterward, three male jurors appeared before the media to answer questions, while declining to give their names. The foreman, a 27-year-old education professional, sometimes referred to the defendant as “Juan.”
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“I don’t believe,” the foreman said, “Mr. Alvarez intended to commit suicide that morning – but he also did not have the intent to kill anyone. I think he wanted to make a statement . . . He clearly wasn’t thinking.”
Another juror admitted that Alvarez’s tormented childhood, which had been documented during the trial, “had a lot to do” with the mercy the jury ultimately bestowed upon the convicted man.
The feeling among the non-media spectators seemed to be one of vague disappointment that Alvarez had beaten a date with the executioner.
“We wanted the most severe penalty and that was death,” said Henry Romero, whose uncle had perished in the wreck. Still, Romero said he and his family respected the jury’s decision.