PHILADELPHIA (CBS/AP) — The case against the Amtrak engineer in the deadly May 2015 accident has been dismissed.
The judge dropped criminal charges against Brandon Bostian following a preliminary hearing on Tuesday.
Judge Thomas Gehret says that based on the evidence offered by prosecutors, he feels it is “more likely an accident than criminal negligence.”
“Today, a good judge made sure that justice was done,” said Bostian’s attorney Brian McMonagle.
The 34-year-old train engineer was facing involuntary manslaughter, causing or risking a catastrophe and reckless endangerment charges.
Investigators say Bostian was operating Amtrak Train 188 in May 2015 when it went off the tracks at Frankford Junction. Eight people were killed, and 200 were hurt.
The NTSB says Bostian accelerated to 106 mph at a 50 mph curve.
Federal safety investigators concluded Bostian lost his bearings while distracted by an incident with a nearby train.
At Tuesday’s hearing, a passenger who survived the deadly crash testified that she could feel the train speed up as it approached a curve, then heard a “big bang” as her car hurtled off the tracks and she wound up unconscious in the woods.
As the train accelerated and began “going way too fast,” Blair Berman said she removed an earbud and looked into the aisle to see what was happening.
“I heard screaming from the front of the car and then a big bang and then I blacked out and woke up in the woods,” she said, adding that other passengers were lying on top of her.
Berman, who suffered several broken bones, testified that she encountered Bostian when she regained consciousness — barefoot and unable to put weight on her leg — and began screaming for help.
She said Bostian initially refused to let her use his phone, then relented, and she called her father.
Berman, who was living in New York at the time of the crash and was heading home after a Mother’s Day weekend in the Philadelphia area, said Bostian appeared alert and aware. She said he was able to tell her where along the route the train had crashed.
But Philadelphia Police Det. Joseph Knoll, testifying later Tuesday, said that Bostian didn’t seem to know where he was when he arrived at a hospital a few miles from the crash scene.
“Are we in New York?” Bostian asked nurses and others as he walked into the hospital, according to Knoll.
Knoll said he could tell Bostian was injured in the crash because he had a visible head wound, but didn’t know the engineer had suffered a concussion.
The National Transportation Safety Board found no evidence that Bostian was impaired or using a cellphone. The agency also called Amtrak’s long failure to implement automatic speed control throughout the busy Northeast Corridor a contributing factor.
“Everybody came to the same inescapable conclusion — this was not a crime,” said McMonagle.
It has since installed speed controls on all the tracks it owns on the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington.
Tuesday’s testimony revealed that Bostian had a second electronic device with him the night of the crash — a tablet computer.
Eric McClendon, with the police department’s bomb disposal unit, said he found a small tablet inside Bostian’s backpack in the locomotive. But the device later went missing and was never examined by federal investigators for possible use while Bostian was operating the train.
Bostian’s attorney theorized he powered the train to full throttle, mistaking that he had already passed through the curve.
Those representing the victims see it as more than a mistake.
“Brandon Bostian’s only job was to get people from one point to the other safely,” said attorney Tom Kline. “He didn’t even need to steer the train.”
Earlier this year, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office declined to charge Bostian. But then, after the family of a victim who died filed a private criminal complaint, a judge ordered Bostian face charges. The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office then decided to handle the case.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro says his office is “reviewing the judge’s decision.”
“The Amtrak crash was a tragedy and this case has a unique procedural history,” he said. “We are carefully reviewing the judge’s decision, notes of testimony and our prosecutorial responsibilities in this case going forward.”
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