The driver at the helm of a tour bus that crashed in a horrific accident last year, killing 15 passengers returning to Chinatown from a casino in Connecticut, was found not guilty of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
Ophadell Williams was acquitted of second-degree manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and various assault charges by a Bronx jury in a verdict reached Thursday and read Friday. He was found guilty of third-degree aggravated operation of an unlicensed motor vehicle.
Williams listened as the verdict was read, occasionally lowering his head to rest it on his hands.
Prosecutors had argued Williams was sleep-deprived and should have known better than to drive in that condition. The defense said Williams was not fatigued and maintained he was a hero, helping injured passengers from the wreck even though he was injured.
The bus crashed March 12, 2011, on Interstate 95 at daybreak in the Bronx as Williams was ferrying a busload of gamblers to Chinatown from the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn.
Aside from the 13 people who died at the scene, two died at a hospital and 15 others were injured, some severely. The bus struck a guard rail, then toppled over and hit a signpost that opened the top like a sardine can before skittering to a stop.
Williams left the courthouse without speaking. His lawyer said Williams just wanted to go home and relax with his family. He had been held on Rikers Island since his arrest because his family couldn't post $250,000 bail.
"He had great faith that he would be vindicated," lawyer Patrick Bruno said outside court. "He said, 'Thank you so much. I knew that they would do the right thing.' ... His wife and sister hugged and kissed me and said, 'Thank you. This is the greatest Christmas and birthday gift of all.'"
For the motor vehicle charge, Williams was sentenced to time served and ordered to pay a $300 fine.
Florence Wong, who lost her father, 76-year-old Don Lee, told reporters that she still believes Williams is responsible for the lives lost in the accident.
"I do not agree with the jury, but I respect their decision because they did look at the evidence and they came out with a verdict," she said.
Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said in a statement that he believed the case was compelling but accepts the jury's verdict.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in June that the accident was probably caused by driver fatigue, and a bus company that provided too little safety oversight. It stopped short of saying Williams had fallen asleep.
Williams worked for World Wide Tours of Greater New York. Federal regulators shut down the bus operator after the accident for safety violations. Williams had not turned in any driver's logs while working for the company as required by federal safety regulations, yet World Wide took no action, federal investigators said.
But the bus company won't face any criminal charges related to the crash, Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson has said.
New York state has stepped up inspections of tour buses since the crash. Dozens of buses have been taken out of service after police found problems with logbooks, licenses or equipment. But there have been several bus accidents since.