Court clears the way for criminal trial in Amtrak crash

The May 12, 2015 Amtrak train derailment.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last week cleared the way for a criminal trial for Brandon W. Bostian, an openly gay train engineer who was involved in a deadly Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia five years ago. On Jan. 5, the high court announced that it won’t hear Bostian’s petition for all charges to be dismissed, without explaining its decision.

On May 12, 2015, eight people were killed and more than 200 were injured when an Amtrak train operated by Bostian derailed at the Frankford Curve in North Philadelphia.

Bostian was driving 106 mph in a 50 mph speed zone when the derailment occurred. Prosecutors allege that Bostian acted recklessly by “consciously disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk.” He’s charged with one count of risking a catastrophe, eight counts of involuntary manslaughter and 216 counts of reckless endangerment. Two lower courts have dismissed the charges, citing a lack of evidence. But two courts have reinstated the charges.

Most recently, a three judge panel of Pennsylvania Superior Court reinstated criminal charges against Bostian. In May 2020, Superior Court judges Victor P. Stabile, Correale F. Stevens and Megan McCarthy King ruled that prosecutors had introduced sufficient evidence to support criminal charges against Bostian.

On Aug. 11, Bostian’s attorneys filed an 88-page petition with the state Supreme Court, asking that all charges against him be dismissed, which is the petition the high court declined to hear. Now that Bostian’s petition was rejected, he faces a criminal trial in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

In court papers, Bostian’s attorneys maintain he was distracted by projectiles thrown at a nearby SEPTA train around the time of the derailment. They assert that Bostian has been in “legal limbo” for five years, and that he shouldn’t be charged criminally for an accident. They also slam prosecutors for criminalizing “human error,” adding that Bostian tried to reduce his speed when approaching the curve, but it was too late to avoid derailment.

For their part, prosecutors maintain the SEPTA incident cited by Bostian doesn’t excuse his alleged criminal conduct. They contend he should have oriented himself to his surroundings before manually increasing the throttle to 106 mph at the Frankford Curve, adding the train would likely have derailed if it were traveling 98 mph or more, according to court papers.

“[Bostian] exhibited a complete lack of vigilance where he ignored or failed to recognize numerous physical reference points that he was required to memorize in order to prevent the very type of catastrophe that occurred. When a train engineer fails to adhere to the applicable speed restrictions, disaster is virtually certain,” according to a prosecution filing.

Bostian, 37, remains free, pending the outcome of a criminal trial. The state Attorney General’s Office is prosecuting the case because the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office declined to pursue the matter.

Attorneys for Bostian had no comment for this story. 

Attorneys for the victims couldn’t be reached for comment. In a previous email, they wrote: “The victims of the Amtrak 188 tragedy welcome [the Superior Court] ruling that will, hopefully, lead to a jury trial, full accountability, and, ultimately, justice.”

A spokesperson for Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro couldn’t be reached for comment. In a prior statement, the AG’s Office said it was moving forward “in our work to deliver justice. The families who lost loved ones in this fateful crash and the many passengers who were injured deserve closure.”

Justin F. Robinette, a civil-rights attorney who’s following the case, expressed concern about the prosecution of Bostian. “It’s dismaying that the state Supreme Court didn’t step in and put a stop to it,” Robinette told PGN. “Two separate judges and the local DA’s Office concluded that no reasonable jury could find him guilty of a crime. I’m concerned [Bostian] will be convicted due to inflamed passion rather than an objective review of the facts. I hope Josh Shapiro will drop the matter and let Mr. Bostian get on with his life. He’s been in legal limbo long enough.”

Robinette added: “I can’t help but wonder if a non-LGBT defendant would be subjected to such a witch-hunt.”

In October 2016, Amtrak agreed to pay $265 million to victims and their families, in one of the largest settlements relating to a train derailment in the country, according to court records.

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Tim Cwiek has been writing for PGN since the 1970s. He holds a bachelor's degree in history from West Chester State University. In 2013, he received a Sigma Delta Chi Investigative Reporting Award from the Society of Professional Journalists for his reporting on the Nizah Morris case. Cwiek was the first reporter for an LGBT media outlet to win an award from that national organization. He's also received awards from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association, the National Newspaper Association, and the Keystone Press.