Trial of MTA driver ends

BWI light rail crash last year led to charges

22 were hurt

March 09, 2001|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

A light rail driver charged with reckless endangerment in a crash at Baltimore-Washington International Airport in February last year did not contest the prosecution case against him yesterday in Anne Arundel Circuit Court but pleaded innocent and left it to the judge to decide his innocence or guilt.

Sam Epps Jr., 54, of the 3900 block of Forest Park Ave. in Baltimore was charged with three counts of reckless endangerment stemming from the accident Feb. 13 that injured 22 people. Epps told federal investigators that he took two strong prescription painkillers that contained morphine and codeine the morning of the accident, which happened about 2:30 p.m.

Prosecutors said Epps endangered passengers by operating the train while on medication. Epps' lawyer, Craig M. Gendler, said his client might have shown bad judgment and been negligent in his behavior, but he did not commit a crime.

According to the uncontested statement of facts, agreed to by both sides, Epps had undergone oral surgery Dec. 20, 1999 and Jan. 10, 2000, and was prescribed oxycodone and acetaminophen with codeine.

The morning of the accident, Epps took the medications as prescribed and later acknowledged that they made him feel "a little drowsy." Epps had taken a nap during his break at the North Avenue station before the crash and, the statement said, "operated the train properly, stopped normally at every stop, and did not appear to be acting in an unusual manner."

There is no evidence that Epps intentionally placed his passengers in harm's way by completing his run, "even though, in retrospect, it was not a prudent thing to do," Gendler said.

Furthermore, Gendler argued that the legislature never intended to punish the type of conduct in the Epps case under the reckless-endangerment law. Excluded from that law is conduct involving the use of a motor vehicle, defined in Maryland as transportation that is "self-propelled or propelled by electric power obtained from overhead electrical wires" and "is not operated on rails." Conduct involving rail vehicles is not excluded, but Gendler argued that it should be.

Gendler said that had Epps been driving a limousine under similar circumstances, he could not be prosecuted on reckless-endangerment charges.

"Just because they didn't think about it doesn't mean it's not relevant to this case," retorted Deputy State's Attorney William D. Roessler, who argued that the 27-year Mass Transit Administration employee was aware of the risk and that his actions were reckless. Epps was fired after the crash.

In January, Circuit Judge Joseph P. Manck barred prosecutors from including information that Epps acknowledged rubbing cocaine onto his gums within a day or so of the crash to numb pain from his tooth extractions.

A second crash occurred Aug 15, when operator Dentis Thomas, 48, a 26-year MTA veteran, crashed into a hydraulic bumping post. Thomas told investigators he was taking a prescription muscle relaxant at the time. The medicine's role in the accident is unclear. The two accidents injured 45 people.

Prosecutors said yesterday that no charges have been filed in the Thomas case. Roessler said that awaiting the outcome of the Epps case is "certainly one reason" the state has not pursued the other case. Thomas had previously tested positive for cocaine and was fired after the accident.

State legislators took transportation officials to task after the second crash, saying that if officials had moved faster to improve safety, the second accident might have been averted.

Among the changes the MTA has instituted are a mechanism that automatically stops a train at BWI if it goes through a red signal, decreased speed for incoming trains and better bumper posts to absorb any impact.

If Manck finds Epps guilty, he could face a maximum of 15 years in prison and a $15,000 fine.

Sun staff writer Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

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