updated 7/15/2008 7:55:13 PM ET 2008-07-15T23:55:13

A man who murdered 11 people by causing a commuter rail disaster was spared the death penalty Tuesday by jurors who wept while listening to victims' relatives but decided he should get life in prison without parole.

Juan Alvarez parked his gasoline-doused sport utility vehicle on railroad tracks in January 2005, causing a Los Angeles-bound Metrolink train to derail and crash into another train going the other way. Aside from the dead, about 180 people were injured in the wreck in Glendale, northeast of Los Angeles.

The jury, which convicted Alvarez last month, had heard the prosecution describe him as a remorseless, smirking defendant who didn't think of the case as a tragedy. The defense painted the 29-year-old as a mentally disturbed man who was almost aborted by his mother, was shaped by a childhood of horrific abuse and became a methamphetamine addict.

The penalty phase had gone to the jury late Monday and the panel signaled it had reached a decision Tuesday morning. Sentencing was set for Aug. 20.

Prosecutors said Alvarez was trying to get his estranged wife's attention the day of the crash. Prosecutors disputed his claims of being suicidal and contended he actually had been thinking of killing his wife before derailing the train.

The defense maintained Alvarez was only trying to kill himself but changed his mind at the last minute and couldn't get the SUV off the tracks before it was struck.

During the penalty phase, jurors cried openly during testimony by survivors of the dead.

Superior Court Judge William Pounders admitted outside the jury's presence that he also had been affected emotionally by the survivors' testimony and told lawyers that to balance things out he would allow jurors to hear a tape of telephone message left by Alvarez for a cousin a few minutes after the catastrophe.

"I didn't mean to do this. ... A lot of innocent people died. I don't deserve to live. ... I apologize for everything. Please pray for me, please," Alvarez sobbed in the phone message, which the judge acknowledged sounded "patently made up."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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