MONTREAL — At the conclusion of the state’s presentation Dec. 12 of its frame-up case against locomotive engineer Tom Harding and train controller Richard Labrie, members of United Steelworkers Local 1976, their attorneys told the judge and jury they will not call any defense witnesses. The reason is that the prosecution — after almost two and a half months of testimony from 31 witnesses — has failed to show the workers engaged in any criminal actions.
The two unionists, along with former low-level Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway operations manager Jean Demaitre, were each charged with 47 counts of criminal negligence causing death after the July 2013 Lac-Mégantic runaway crude oil train derailment and explosion that killed 47 people and burned out the downtown core there. A conviction could mean life in prison.
Demaitre’s attorney also said he wouldn’t present any defense witnesses.
It has been clear from the start of the trial Oct. 2 in Sherbrooke, Quebec, that the main target of the government and rail bosses is Harding, who was the one-person “crew” on the train. He is accused of not setting a “sufficient” number of hand brakes on the 72-car train when he finished work that night.
The prosecution case against Harding, based on a report commissioned by Quebec provincial cops, is in direct contradiction to the conclusions of the official and published report by the independent Transportation Safety Board.
The TSB pointed to 18 different factors, documenting widespread disregard for safety by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic bosses and oversight failures by the government’s Transport Canada. The latter had approved the railway’s request to slash crew size in half in order to cut wage costs and raise profits.
Because of a pretrial ruling by presiding Superior Court Judge Gaétan Dumas, the safety board report could not be introduced in the trial, and cannot be used by the jury in its deliberations.
As he had done many times before, Harding parked the train on the main line at the village of Nantes seven miles up a slope from Lac-Mégantic. He left the lead locomotive running with its air brakes on, as usual, as well as setting a number of hand brakes, to prevent the train from moving. But during the night volunteer firefighters called to the scene turned off the engine when they put out a small fire that resulted from unsafe conditions and lack of service. Company personnel called Harding to tell him what happened. He volunteered to get out of bed and come check things out. He was told the company had people on the scene, that all was under control, and he should go back to sleep.
Lacking power the air brakes bled out and the train rolled into Lac-Mégantic, derailed and exploded.
“At the beginning the prosecution thought they had an open and shut case, based on the number of hand brakes Harding applied,” Thomas Walsh, one of Harding’s lawyers, told the Militant in a Dec. 14 phone interview. “But as the trial unfolded and their witnesses testified about the lack of training and safety practices by the MMA, their case began to dissolve.”
Government’s case not convincing
“The burden is on the prosecution to prove its accusations beyond a reasonable doubt,” he said. “They haven’t even come close to establishing that Harding committed a crime.”
Under cross-examination many of the prosecution’s own witnesses, including locomotive engineers and others who worked with Harding, admitted the company’s “culture” of disregard for safety and profit-driven priorities created a disaster waiting to happen.
It was revealed, for example, that the bosses ordered Harding, in order to save the company time and money, not to use an additional braking system that would have prevented the disaster. Management took no safety precautions when it cut the crew size down to one person. They let the train go that day, even though they knew the engine was acting up and the train was 3,000 tons over the legal limit. Bosses ignored requests by Montreal, Maine and Atlantic workers, including Harding, to have the lead locomotive sent to the shop to be fixed. All this and more came out.
A number of people came from Lac-Mégantic to sit in on parts of the trial. Overwhelmingly they say the wrong people are in the dock — the workers should be free and the railway’s owners and officials of Transport Canada should be on trial.
The trial is recessed until Jan. 3, when the prosecution will make its closing arguments. Defense attorneys for Labrie and Demaitre will present their arguments Jan. 4, and Harding’s lawyers the next day. Then the case goes to the jury.
Supporters of Harding and Labrie urge defenders of workers’ rights to be in the courtroom to show their opposition to the frame-up and stand with the workers. Messages in support of Harding and Labrie should be sent to USW Local 1976/Section locale 1976, 2360 De Lasalle, Suite 202, Montreal, QC Canada H1V 2L1. Copies should be sent to Thomas Walsh, 165 Rue Wellington N., Suite 310, Sherbrooke, QC Canada J1H 5B9. Email: email@example.com.
Michel Prairie contributed to this article.