The operator of a light rail train that overran its stop and crashed 13 months ago at Baltimore-Washington International Airport was acquitted yesterday of all criminal charges by an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court judge.
In a written decision, Judge Joseph P. Manck said prosecutors did not show that Samuel Epps Jr. knew he was taking a significant risk by taking two prescription painkillers and driving the train.
"If there is no intention to disregard a known risk, then there is no criminal intent," said Epps' lawyer, Craig M. Gendler. "But maybe he could have showed better judgment."
Epps, 54, who was fired by the Mass Transit Administration, was at work at another job when the verdict was filed and could not be reached, Gendler said. He had been charged with three misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment stemming from serious injuries to passengers in the accident Feb. 13 last year, when his train slammed into a protective barrier at BWI.
The judge wrote that although Epps knew the medicine he took at 7 a.m. that day might make him drowsy -- and though he took a two-hour midday nap -- he had no special instructions not to operate the train. "While the state may well have made out a case for negligence, the state has not made out a case beyond a reasonable doubt of reckless endangerment," the judge wrote in his ruling. Epps told investigators that a day or two before the crash he had used powdered cocaine to soothe his gums because he had had oral surgery, but Manck barred that information from the case because prosecutors did not show it was relevant.
Manck made his ruling a little more than a week after hearing a joint statement of facts and opposing legal arguments in the nonjury case.
Deputy State's Attorney William D. Roessler said he probably will not pursue charges against another light rail driver involved in a nearly identical accident last summer. The operator, Dentis Thomas, 48, told investigators he was taking a muscle relaxant on Aug. 15 when his train crashed at the airport stop.
Roessler said that accident remains under review. Thomas also was fired by the MTA.
Gendler said he did not know whether Epps, a 27-year veteran of the Mass Transit Administration, would try to regain his job. He had been a light rail driver for four years, according to a joint statement of facts that the prosecutors and defense agreed on.
Roessler said the ruling signals that to win a conviction for reckless endangerment against a light rail operator, a prosecutor would have to show "more evidence of the defendant doing something more reckless than we had in this case."
Laws on negligent and reckless driving do not apply to light rail, leaving no other charges available. "I would think that the publicity surrounding this event and the result might cause the legislature to take a look at it," Roessler said.
The MTA has paid claims to several of the 22 injured passengers. Spokesman Frank Fulton said MTA officials had not seen Manck's ruling and could not comment on it.
State legislators took transportation officials to task after the second crash, saying that if officials moved faster to improve safety, the second accident might have been averted.