Lawyer calls mention of drug use prejudicial

Light rail driver's counsel says state cannot prove cocaine led to BWI crash

January 06, 2001|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The lawyer for the light rail operator driving a train that crashed at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in February is asking a judge to bar prosecutors from mentioning during a trial his client's cocaine and prescription drug use shortly before the accident.

Sam Epps Jr., 54, of the 3900 block of Forest Park Ave. in Baltimore, acknowledged using cocaine to numb his gums a day or two before the Feb. 13 crash. He also told federal investigators he took two strong prescription painkillers the morning of the accident, which happened at 2:30 p.m.

Epps is charged with three counts of reckless endangerment stemming from serious injuries to passengers. The nonjury trial, which had been set to begin next week, was rescheduled to March 8.

Yesterday, his lawyer, Craig M. Gendler, told Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Joseph P. Manck that prosecutors should not be allowed to use the drug information because they cannot prove Epps was drug-intoxicated at the time of the accident or that drugs caused the crash.

He argued that any mention of cocaine would be "highly prejudicial" because the drug is illegal. Besides, he said, there is no indication that Epps' putting it on his gums had any mind-altering effects.

But Anne Arundel County Deputy State's Attorney William D. Roessler contended that a judge should get the full picture of the circumstances of the accident, including label warnings that the prescription drugs can cause drowsiness and urine tests showing Epps had ingested cocaine and prescription painkillers.

"The person who takes painkillers and goes and operates the light rail, and he also is taking other drugs, that's even more reckless," Roessler argued.

However, he speculated that Gendler's argument to block mention of the cocaine was better than the one about the prescription drugs because prescription medications are legal. Epps had four teeth extracted in December and one in January, Gendler said.

Manck did not indicate when he would rule on Gendler's request. Each count of endangerment, a misdemeanor, carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Epps, a 25-year Mass Transit Administration veteran, acknowledged taking powerful painkillers without notifying his superiors, contrary to job rules.

The accident was the first of two similar light rail accidents last year that together resulted in injuries to about 45 people. In both, the trains overran the BWI stop.

The second occurred Aug. 15. Operator Dentis Thomas, 48, a 26-year MTA veteran, told investigators he was taking a prescription muscle relaxant, but its role in the accident is unclear. Both operators had previously tested positive for cocaine and had returned to their jobs after undergoing drug rehabilitation programs. Both were fired after the accidents. Thomas has not been charged.

State legislators took transportation officials to task after the second crash, saying had officials moved faster to improve safety measures, the August accident could have been averted.

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