Ophadell Williams, the 41 year old bus driver charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the March 12, 2011 accident in which 15 were killed and many others injured, was found not guilty of all but one of 55 charges against him on December 7, 2012. The accident occurred on I-95 in the Bronx as a group from Chinatown was returning from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. Prosecutors charged that Williams was “driving while drowsy”, a theory that has yet to be established in New York State.
The accident was horrific, with Williams losing control of the bus, at which time it struck a guardrail, flipped over and the roof of the bus was sheared off. In addition to the fifteen passenger fatalities, many others were grievously injured, including one man whose arms were severed as he attempted to shield his head. Recent studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and other traffic safety organizations have shown that driving without sufficient sleep can be just as dangerous as DWI or distracted driving, although prosecutors are clearly hampered by the lack of evidence in these cases, unlike the blood alcohol testing they have in DWI cases, and cell phone records in distracted driving cases.
Despite these evidentiary difficulties, prosecutors have been successful in proving the dangers of drowsy driving in other states. For example, a bus driver was recently convicted of involuntary manslaughter in Virginia after authorities claimed that he fell asleep prior to a crash in which four passengers were killed and dozens others injured. Drowsy driving cases have also been instituted in Florida, New Jersey and Texas.
In the Williams case, the prosecution introduced expert testimony from a sleep disorders specialist to establish that in the three days before the crash, Williams had only slept three hours per day, and that this was dangerous behavior which was likely to result in an accident, similar to a driver who takes the wheel when they know they have had too much to drink or is texting a friend while driving. Additionally, the prosecution offered evidence that Williams was operating the bus at a speed of 78 m.p.h just prior to the crash, more than 20 m.p.h. over the posted speed limit on I-95 in that area.
The defense contended that Mr. Williams had sufficient sleep to operate the bus safely, and had been cut off by a tractor-trailer seconds before the accident. However, there was no evidence of the cut-off, and many passengers testified that Williams was driving erratically, at an excessive rate of speed, and that they never saw a tractor trailer. Mr. Williams’ counsel also contended that at 5:00 AM, with little traffic on the road, a speed of 78 m.p.h was not reckless.
Mr. Williams faced 15 years in jail on the manslaughter charges, which were multiplied by the many victims on the bus. The only charge he was convicted on was aggravated unlicensed operation, a misdemeanor under the Vehicle & Traffic Law, for failing to pay numerous tickets. The jail sentence of 30 days on that charge was commuted due to time served, as Williams has been incarcerated from September of 2011 when he failed to make bail. He must also pay a $500.00 fine on the AUO charge. Despite the tremendous relief from his exoneration on the criminal charges, Mr. Williams is far from out of legal jeopardy, as he still faces several civil lawsuits from the families of the many victims. However, it is doubtful there is anywhere near the necessary insurance coverage to compensate the families, and equally doubtful that Mr. Williams has the assets to satisfy the many judgments that are likely to be obtained against him.