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Bus driver acquitted in deadly I-95 crash

Ophadell Williams, who was behind the wheel in

Ophadell Williams, who was behind the wheel in the March 2011 bus crash that killed 15 people, is surrounded by family and court security as he walks out of State Supreme Court in the Bronx. (Dec. 7, 2012) Credit: Craig Ruttle

A tour bus driver charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for being behind the wheel in a Bronx crash that killed 15 people was acquitted of nearly all charges Friday.

Following two months of testimony, jurors in State Supreme Court in the Bronx found Ophadell Williams not guilty of 53 of 54 charges. He was convicted only of a single misdemeanor count of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle.

Williams, 41, cried in relief, covering his face with both hands as the verdict was read aloud.

Relatives of the victims, many of whom were present in the courtroom, left disappointed.

"I think the jury made the wrong decision," said Florence Wong of Manhattan, whose 76-year-old father, Don Lee, was among those killed. "The driver was responsible for what happened."

Judge Troy Webber sentenced Williams to 30 days in jail, which he has already served, and imposed a $500 fine. The Brooklyn man had faced up to 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine if convicted of the most serious charges.

"It just appeared that they were grasping at straws trying to make him a criminal for not getting what they claim is the required number of hours a day of sleep," said Williams' lawyer, Patrick Bruno of Floral Park. "It was a motor vehicle accident, not a crime."

"We believe that our case was compelling. Nevertheless, we accept the decision of the jury," Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson said in a statement.

The March 12, 2011, crash on Interstate 95 happened about 5:40 a.m. as Williams drove a World Wide Tours of Greater New York bus full of gamblers from the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut to Chinatown.

The bus struck a guardrail and flipped on its side near the Bronx and Westchester County border, then slid into a heavy-duty signpost that sliced the vehicle in half lengthwise, authorities said. Besides the 15 who died, another 18 passengers were injured.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined that the crash was likely caused by driver fatigue and lack of oversight by World Wide Tours. Federal regulators closed the bus company, citing persistent safety violations.

At trial, prosecutors said Williams got behind the wheel on March 12 despite being sleep-deprived and posed the same threat to passengers and other motorists as a drunken driver.

Williams had twice received training warning of the dangers of driving without enough sleep, and prosecutors said the bus' "black box" indicated he never hit the brakes as the vehicle careened out of control.

Bruno argued that Williams was alert during the crash and swerved into the guardrail when a tractor-trailer cut him off in traffic.

Williams tested negative for drugs and alcohol after the crash, authorities said. Authorities said he obtained a commercial driver's license by using an alias. His regular license had been suspended after he ignored traffic tickets.

Survivors of the crash and relatives of passengers who died have filed at least 25 civil lawsuits against Williams and World Wide Tours, court records show.

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.

With AP

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