For the second time in two years, a Pennsylvania judge has dismissed charges against an Amtrak engineer who was driving a speeding train that derailed in Philadelphia in 2015, killing eight people.
The engineer, Brandon Bostian, 36, faced more than 200 charges in the May 2015 derailment, including one count of causing catastrophe, a felony, and several counts of involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment, both misdemeanors.
Just before the derailment, Mr. Bostian had accelerated the train to 106 miles per hour as it entered a curved section of track with a 50 m.p.h. speed limit. The train then careened off the track and into Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood.
In dismissing the charges on Tuesday, Judge Barbara McDermott of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas sided with Mr. Bostian’s lawyer in ruling that the mistakes he made did not constitute a crime. “The law recognizes we’re all human,” the judge said, according to The Associated Press.
Mr. Bostian erred after a local passenger train going the other direction was struck by a rock that broke that train’s windshield and made an emergency stop, said Mr. Bostian’s lawyer, Brian McMonagle.
“A mistake is never the basis for charging someone with a crime,” he said. “Otherwise, every doctor who commits malpractice would be charged with a crime.”
Judge McDermott became the second judge to reject criminal culpability for Mr. Bostian in a case that has taken an unusually twisted path through Pennsylvania’s legal system.
More than 200 people were injured in the derailment, in addition to the eight killed. In October 2016, Amtrak agreed to pay up to $265 million to victims and their families in one of the largest settlements related to a train derailment in the United States.
The Philadelphia district attorney declined to charge Mr. Bostian in May 2017, saying he did not believe there was enough evidence to prove Mr. Bostian consciously disregarded a “substantial and unjustifiable risk.”
But then lawyers for the victims and their families learned of a Pennsylvania law that allows anyone to file a private criminal complaint in municipal court requesting certain charges against someone.
The families filed the private complaint against Mr. Bostian in Philadelphia Municipal Court. The district attorney’s office once again opted not to pursue charges, claiming it had a conflict of interest because it had already decided against pressing charges.
So Attorney General Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania brought criminal charges in May 2017.
In September 2017, a Philadelphia Municipal Court judge dismissed the charges, saying the episode appeared to be an accident and not the result of criminal negligence.
The attorney general’s office appealed to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, and in February 2018, the criminal charges were restored.
Mr. McMonagle said Tuesday’s dismissal came after he filed motions — citing new decisions in separate criminal recklessness cases — that supported the argument that Mr. Bostian should not be charged.
On Tuesday, the state attorney general’s office vowed to press on.
“Nothing has changed from the position of our first appeal — accordingly, we will be appealing the decision,” Jacklin Rhoads, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said in a statement Tuesday.
Mr. McMonagle called the prosecution an “obscenity.”
“Now two judges have said the same thing, and not to mention the district attorney’s office that investigated it for two years that declined to prosecute,” he said. “I’ve yet to hear any reasonable explanation from the attorney general’s office as to why they continue this prosecution.”
In a 2016 report, the National Transportation Safety Board said Mr. Bostian accelerated the train after “he lost his situational awareness because his attention was diverted to an emergency situation with a nearby Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) train that had made an emergency stop after being struck by a projectile,” the report said.
The board said Mr. Bostian accelerated because he thought it was at a different section of the route.
“The reason that he made the mistake was occasioned by the chaos on the tracks,” Mr. McMonagle said.
Thomas R. Kline and Robert Mongeluzzi, lawyers representing victims’ families, said in an emailed statement that they disagreed with Tuesday’s ruling: “Our clients are hopeful that the ruling will be reversed on appeal, and that ultimately there will be public accountability of Mr. Bostian, whose recklessness caused the death of eight individuals and mayhem to the lives of hundreds of others.”
Mihir Zaveri covers breaking news from New York. Before joining The Times in 2018 he was a reporter for The Houston Chronicle.