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Amtrak engineer dodges charges, but building collapse contractor got 30 years

Some say difference in handling of the cases is “deeply troubling,” but others disagree.
Amtrak engineer Brandon Bostian isn't facing criminal charges for a derailment that killed eight and injured 200, but Griffin Campbell, contractor at the building collapse that killed seven and injured a dozen, got 15 to 30 years. (Provided)

Amtrak engineer Brandon Bostian sped a train up to 106 mph on May 12, 2015, just before it leapt the tracks at a curve in Frankford, killing eight and injuring 200. But the Philadelphia DA’s office won't file criminal charges against Bostian because, they said, they could not prove “criminal intent.”

To Bill Hobson, lawyer for contractor Griffin Campbell, who got 15 to 30 years for overseeing the demolition at 22nd and Market that killed seven and injured a dozen, there was a different answer.

“It comes down to the same factor: There are two justice systems in this country, one for those who are white and one for those who are black. One for those that have money and one for those that don’t,” Hobson said.

To Hobson, Campbell also had no criminal intent. Prosecutors argued Campbell should have stopped the unsafe demolition that ultimately proved deadly when backhoe operator Sean Benschop knocked a wall onto an adjacent Salvation Army store, crushing shoppers and staff inside. (Benschop pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 7 1/2 to 15 years.) Hobson argued unsuccessfully at trial that Campbell wasn’t properly trained or licensed and was just hired because he offered a low bid.

“Between that train engineer and Grif Campbell, who do you think was more properly trained? The train guy," he said. "Clearly you could charge him [Bostian] with reckless endangerment. I think you could have charged him with manslaughter.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found Bostian accelerated by mistake after losing "situational awareness" while distracted by radio reports a few minutes earlier of a SEPTA Regional Rail train having its windshield shattered by a thrown rock.

In his own testimony about the accident, he said he was thinking about a fellow engineer who had been hurt in a similar accident and thinking about his own safety just before the derailment.

Philadelphia DA Seth Williams convened an investigating grand jury to prepare indictments after the building collapse. But Hobson said no grand jury was formed after the derailment because, he said, Williams “lacked intestinal fortitude” and “was dealing with his own problems.” (Williams is currently facing an impending federal trial on corruption charges.) Campbell and Benschop were charged with multiple counts of murder.

“It just seemed like they needed a fall guy. There was so much outrage over this,” said Rodney Muhammad, executive director of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP, which has pleaded for reconsideration of Campbell’s sentence. “Now, to hear in the news that someone driving at 106 mph on a curve – clearly recklessness was shown, disregard for human life was shown – and they’re not going to be charged … that’s deeply troubling.”

Campebll was found to only be “one percent” responsible for the collapse at the victims’ civil trial against the Salvation Army, the late developer Richard Basciano, who ordered the demolition, and architect Plato Marinakos, which concluded with a $265 million verdict for victims and their families.

Republican candidate for DA Beth Grossman declined to second guess the DA’s decision, saying criminal intent can be very hard to prove, as in the 2012 Buck Hosiery factory fire case which she worked on, in which no criminal charges were filed.

She did disagree with Williams on one key point, though: “I would have charged the architect,” she said.

Democratic candidate Joe Khan said in a statement he also wouldn’t “second guess frontline prosecutors,” but that he hoped “the settlement secured in the federal lawsuit brings victims and their families a sense of justice and that the settlement encourages stronger safety procedures to prevent future tragedies."

But lawyer Robert Mongeluzzi, who won that settlement while representing victims and their families, still trashed the DA’s decision.

“This is a sad day for railroad safety in America and for the justice system, when engineer Bostian is allowed to resume his life without so much as a speeding ticket while others mourn the loss of loved ones and so many seriously injured survivors struggle in their daily lives,” he said.