In the aftermath of the tragic Metro North derailment of December 1st which killed 4 passengers and injured more than 70, some critically, the Bronx District Attorney’s office is considering bringing criminal charges against the train engineer, William Rockefeller. The reported evidence indicates that at the time of the accident, the 5:54 AM southbound train was travelling at 82 miles per hour entering a sharp curve just north of the Spuyten Duyvil station, where the speed limit is 30 miles per hour. Rockefeller’s attorney claims that he “dozed off” just prior to the derailment and that this was the reason for his failure to apply the brakes until a few seconds before the accident. Mr. Rockefeller then attempted the emergency measure of “dropping the brakes”, meaning that he pressed on the brakes with full force, but it was too late.
To prove a criminal case against Rockefeller, the D.A will have a difficult hurdle. Prosecutors must prove that the train engineer either:
1. Intentionally caused the crash;
2. Knowingly caused the crash;
3. Recklessly caused the crash; or
4. Was criminally negligent in his actions that early Sunday morning two weeks ago.
In my opinion, the D.A. will not have any chance of proving, nor are they likely to attempt to do so, that Rockefeller intentionally or knowingly caused the accident. By all accounts, Mr. Rockefeller was an experienced engineer who enjoyed his work. Similarly, I believe prosecutors will not try to prove that Rockefeller was reckless on that fateful December morning.
The only possible charge that the D.A. may pursue is “criminally negligent homicide.” However, even this charge will be fraught with difficulty for the prosecution. In order to prove criminally negligent homicide, the D.A. must prove that Mr. Rockefeller exhibited a reckless or indifferent disregard for the rights of others, and failed to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his actions constituted a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would use in the situation.
Last year, the Bronx D.A. was unsuccessful in prosecuting Ophadell Williams, who was a 41 year old bus driver charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in a fatal bus accident on March 12, 2011 on I-95 in the Bronx in which 15 were killed and many others injured. Prosecutors attempted to prove that Williams was so sleep deprived that he should be held criminally responsible for his conduct in operating the bus in that condition. This theory of “driving while drowsy” has never been established in New York State, and the prosecution would be attempting a similar argument in prosecuting Rockefeller. The Bronx jury rejected the argument and acquitted Mr. Williams in December of 2012 of all but one of 55 charges against him, despite the fact that he had a rather extensive criminal record in addition to the horrific fatalities and injuries Mr. Williams caused in the bus accident.
Ultimately, I believe the Bronx D.A. will decline to prosecute Mr. Rockefeller as their experience in the Williams case was instructive and cautionary—trials are costly and time consuming, and they must utilize limited personnel and resources judiciously.