Emergency workers investigate the scene of the March 12, 2011, tour bus… (David Karp, Associated…)
NEW YORK — Jurors on Friday acquitted a driver of manslaughter in the deaths of 15 people killed when their tour bus smashed into a guardrail, tipped over and skidded hundreds of feet down an expressway — a crash prosecutors blamed on the unlicensed driver's fatigue.
After eight days of deliberations and several weeks of testimony, including accounts from victims who had lost limbs in the horrific crash, the jury rejected the prosecution's argument and found the driver, Ophadell Williams, guilty of only one count: a misdemeanor charge of operating a vehicle without a license.
Williams, 41, who had sat nervously twisting his hands as the jury filed in, leaned back and looked upward in relief, then wiped away tears as the words "not guilty" sounded throughout the courtroom 53 times.
He had faced 54 counts, including second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault, stemming from the deaths and injuries in the March 2011 incident. Williams was fined $500 and sentenced to 30 days in jail — time he has already served — on the charge of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. He left the Bronx courtroom holding his wife's hand and did not speak to reporters.
Williams' attorney, Patrick Bruno, said Williams had been "the fall guy for what was basically a horrendous accident." The prosecutor, Assistant Dist. Atty. Gary Weil, said: "I believe the prosecution was valid and that he was criminally responsible. Obviously the jury said no."
One of the victims' relatives, Florence Wong, also expressed disappointment. "He had a … duty to drive not drowsy, to get the passengers safely to their destination," she said outside of the courthouse.
"We do not agree with the jury's decision, but I'm biased because I'm a family member, so I will accept … the jury's decision," added Wong, whose 76-year-old father died in the crash. "Life goes on."
Jurors, who did not comment after the verdict, had wrestled with defining extreme driver fatigue, a dangerous condition but not one that can be diagnosed with a breath or blood test. Prosecutors had hoped that cellphone records and other evidence would show that Williams had lied about how much he had slept in the hours before the crash. They also accused him of concocting a story of being hit by another vehicle to shift blame for the crash.
Immediately after the crash, Williams said he had been clipped by a tractor-trailer as he traveled south toward Manhattan from Connecticut in the dark, predawn hours. No tractor-trailer was ever found, and some witnesses testified that Williams' bus was swerving before the crash.
In June, the National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash on what they called a "severely fatigued" driver. It noted that there were no skid marks on the highway — an indication Williams was dozing and therefore unable to hit the brakes when the crash occurred.
"An examination of the driver's work schedule, sleep times and cellphone use revealed that his opportunity for sleep in the 72 hours prior to the crash would have been limited to short periods of three hours or less," the NTSB said.
The bus was traveling at 78 mph in a 50-mph zone when it hit the center guardrail of Interstate 95, just north of New York City. It tipped onto its right side and skidded to a stop, coming to rest just inside the city limits, with much of the top of the bus sheared off by a metal pole. The passengers, most of them senior citizens, were returning from an overnight jaunt to a casino.
The crash, and subsequent accidents involving tour buses, prompted federal officials earlier this year to crack down on tour bus companies that offer cheap tickets and carry hundreds of people daily along the busy I-95 corridor. In May, it closed 26 companies accused of violating federal safety standards, including not ensuring drivers got enough rest. The company that had employed Williams, Worldwide Travel, shut down after the 2011 crash.