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Trial Starts for Driver of Van That Killed 6 Teenagers on Road Crew in Nevada

Tragedy: She says she fell asleep at the wheel and veered into cleanup workers. Prosecutors contend she was under the influence of drugs.

February 06, 2001|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — The sight of the carnage stopped this city in its tracks last March: Six teenagers, serving as a county work crew picking up freeway trash, killed when a minivan drifted onto the median and plowed through them like so many pylons.

The driver of the vehicle, a 20-year-old stripper, said she had fallen asleep at the wheel.

Prosecutors contend that the driver, Jessica Williams, was under the influence of marijuana and Ecstasy, and on Monday they argued in the first day of her trial that she should be convicted of involuntary manslaughter, reckless driving and driving under the influence resulting in death.

The sentence for a conviction ranges from probation with no incarceration to a prison term of 120 years with the possibility of parole.

Jury selection was difficult, with a number of potential jurors saying they were too emotional about the tragedy--and unprepared to view photographs of the scene--to serve.

A jury was seated last week, but the judge promptly called a mistrial after receiving reports that one juror was predisposed to find Williams guilty, and a second juror was told by a friend that the defendant was guilty.

A second jury was seated and will be sequestered during the trial, which is expected to last about two weeks.

Williams is being held on $5-million bail and over the weekend was placed on suicide watch. On Monday, she sat impassively in court, her hair pulled back tightly in a ponytail.

The victims, ages 14 to 16, had been convicted of minor offenses in juvenile court, and in lieu of jail time were assigned to county cleanup crews.

Such juveniles typically were assigned to pick up trash at parks, vacant lots and roadways, under adult supervision. After the March crash, the county quickly dropped the freeway cleanup program.

The victims were among a crew of about 20 who were cleaning the freeway median on March 19. They were being followed by a county van with its hazard lights flashing; Williams' vehicle apparently just missed it.

The teenagers were working about 12 feet from the edge of pavement--so close to speeding vehicles, suggested defense attorney John Watkins in his opening statements Monday, that his client should not be held criminally responsible.

A passenger in Williams' van testified to a grand jury that she and Williams had used Ecstasy and then smoked marijuana before the accident. The woman said that they both fell asleep.

The families of the victims have filed civil wrongful-death lawsuits against Williams, the county and a trash hauling company that paid the county to pick up garbage.

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