By Tina Susman
NEW YORK -- A jury Friday acquitted a bus driver in the deaths of 15 passengers who were killed when the coach he was operating flipped over at high speed, rejecting prosecution arguments that he was too tired to be behind the wheel.
Ophadell Williams, 41, was charged with more than 50 counts and faced as much as 15 years in prison. Wearing a gray suit and a shirt and tie, Williams clasped his hands in front of him as "not guilty" was read repeatedly in the courtroom. As it became clear he would be acquitted of the most serious charges, he leaned back and looked upward in relief.
He had been charged with criminally negligent homicide, second-degree manslaughter and assault for each passenger's death.
Williams was convicted only on one count: aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle. For that charge, he was fined $500 and sentenced to 30 days in jail -- time he had already served since his arrest after the crash.
The jury deliberated eight days and had to wrestle with the question of how to define extreme driver fatigue, a dangerous condition but not one diagnosed with a breath or blood test. Instead, they relied upon witness testimony and lawyers' arguments during the five-week trial, during which the defense insisted Williams was innocent and that the trial was a sham.
Defense attorney Patrick Bruno did not call any witnesses to underscore his argument that it made no sense to put someone on trial for allegedly being weary. "You could be in that seat," he told the jury as the trial began, comparing the job of a bus driver to that of anyone working long hours. "That's what bothers me, and let it bother you, too."
Prosecutors said evidence bolstered their claim that Williams was dozing behind the wheel and that his condition was as dangerous as if he had been drinking or taking drugs. Among other things, they said that Williams was traveling 78 mph in a 50-mph zone and that there were no skid marks on the highway, showing that he did not apply the brakes during the crash. Surviving passengers and drivers of other vehicles testified during the trial that the bus had been swerving and speeding.
Williams, who was driving a group back to New York after an overnight gambling jaunt in Connecticut, said he lost control of the bus when another vehicle clipped him on Interstate 95 just as he was crossing into New York City. The crash was horrific. The bus hit a guardrail, tipped onto its right side and skidded hundreds of feet on the highway. The vehicle was nearly sheared in half by a metal pole, and many of the passengers suffered severed limbs.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded this year that Williams was too tired to be driving safely and said his work schedule and phone records indicated he could not have slept more than three hours at a time in the 72 hours before the crash.
NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said the crash was "one of the deadliest" the board had ever investigated. "Fatigue and speed are an especially lethal combination," she said after the NTSB's findings were announced in June.