Bus Driver Who Killed 15 Not Guilty of Manslaughter
A bus driver who killed 15 passengers when he crashed his vehicle last year in New York City was found not guilty by a jury last week after a trial in which prosecutors tried to portray tired driving as a criminal act.
Ophadell Williams, 41, was the driver of a Chinatown bus returning from a Connecticut casino in March 2011. As he was driving down I-95 in the Bronx, he hit a guardrail and flipped the bus.
Fifteen passengers were killed and many others seriously injured, including a man who had both arms ripped off.
The key issue in the trial was the prosecution’s efforts to show that Williams should be criminally responsible because he was too tired to get behind the wheel. Prosecutors argued that Williams was averaging three hours of sleep per night and was driving erratically. The defense asserted that the bus had been cut off by a truck just before the crash.
The jury eventually sided with the defense after five days of deliberations. Williams was acquitted of 53 charges, and found guilty of unlicensed driving because he had outstanding traffic tickets. Because he had already spent over a year in jail since he couldn’t pay bail, he was sentenced to time served and released.
Various studies have shown that driving while tired can be at least as dangerous as driving drunk, and the National Transportation Safety Board estimates that 100,000 crashes per year that injure 40,000 people and kill 1,550 are the result of tired driving.
In June the Board acknowledged that driver fatigue was the most likely cause of the Williams bus accident.
However, while states across the nation vigorously prosecute drunk drivers, driving tired is not a crime in and of itself, which makes criminal convictions a dicey proposition, argues a prominent New York criminal defense attorney.
“There is no statute that makes tired driving a crime,” says attorney Steven B. Epstein, a founding partner in the firm Barket Marion. “In criminal law, our society needs to be put on notice that there’s a certain conduct that’s not lawful.”
“Not that the bus driver’s conduct was appropriate,” Epstein says. “But the jury had to answer — was it criminal?” By comparison, a drunk person who drives a car knows in advance he or she is breaking the law, whereas a tired person would have no reason to believe that to be the case, because it isn’t.
“The prosecutor would have had to prove recklessness or criminal negligence,” the attorney says. “The question the jury had to face is, is this person criminally responsible? The only way you know if he’s criminally responsible is to look to the law.”
The trial comes at a time when more states are criminalizing other forms of distracted driving such as texting or talking on a cell phone, and drowsy driving trials are popping up in other courts. According to the New York Times, criminal cases against tired drivers are proceeding in six other states, and a Virginia bus driver was convicted of involuntary manslaughter last month after falling asleep at the wheel and killing four passengers in a crash.
However, proving a person was drunk or using a cell phone behind the wheel is easier to do than proving drowsiness: blood alcohol content can be measured and phone records can be subpoenaed. Even if tired driving were a crime, officials would have a difficult time quantifying or measuring drivers’ fatigue levels.
The question also brushes against what are considered societal norms, Epstein argues. “Many people who drive home from a long day of work are faced with situations where they may be tired,” he says. “I’m not saying that fatigued driving is good and people should go about doing it. There’s a civil responsibility.”
Indeed, Williams is likely to face lawsuits next from the victims and their families where he could very well be held responsible for their deaths and injuries. In civil court he will be called to answer for his driving — but without the risk of losing his freedom for a felony conviction over an act that isn’t forbidden by law.
“It’s wrong,” says Epstein, “but it’s not criminal.”