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FILE--In this photo from Saturday, March 12, 2011, emergency personnel investigate the scene of a bus crash on Interstate-95 in the Bronx borough of New York. A verdict has been reached in a manslaughter case against the bus driver Ophadell Williams, charged in the crash that killed 15 passengers. Williams has pleaded not guilty. He says a tractor-trailer cut him off and he lost control. The bus carrying gamblers coming from a Connecticut casino was sheared open like a sardine can when it struck a pole. (AP Photo/David Karp, File)
Bus driver not guilty of manslaughter in N.Y. crash
Verdict » For death of 15 gamblers, Williams gets 30 days, $500 fee.
First Published Dec 07 2012 06:42 pm • Last Updated Dec 07 2012 08:08 pm

New York • A tour bus driver who prosecutors said was all but asleep at the wheel was acquitted Friday of manslaughter and negligent homicide in a crash last year that killed 15 gamblers on their way from a Connecticut casino to New York City.

Ophadell Williams was found guilty on one count of aggravated unlicensed driving.

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Williams wept and covered his face with his hands as the verdict was read. On the count which he was found guilty, the judge sentenced him to 30 days in prison, which he has served. He also was ordered to pay a fee of $500.

Williams argued throughout the trial that he had been awake and alert, and he said the crash was not the result of reckless behavior or extreme exhaustion. He said a tractor-trailer cut him off, causing him to swerve and hit a guardrail. But investigators could find no indication that had occurred.

His lawyer had said he was wracked with guilt over the crash — but not guilty of manslaughter.

"It happened as a motor vehicle accident, not as some crime," said Williams’ lawyer, Patrick Bruno. "He tried to avoid tragedy, and tragedy occurred."

The defendant left the courthouse without speaking. His lawyer said Williams just wanted to go home and relax with his family.

"He had great faith that he would be vindicated," 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.’"

Bruno said the verdict made an important legal point.

"It’s saying that if you are going to try and make fatigue — sleepiness — a criminal legal issue in a motor vehicle accident, you have a lot, lot more to prove," he said.

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Florence Wong, whose father, 76-year-old Don Lee, was killed in the crash, told reporters that she still believes Williams is responsible for the lives lost.

"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.

Prosecutor Garry Wiel called the not guilty verdict a disappointment.

"I believe that we had enough evidence to show the jury that he should be held criminally responsible," Wiel said. "The jury made their decision based on the evidence."

Weil had alleged Williams was so sleep-deprived from working another job during the day that it affected his reflexes as much as if he were intoxicated behind the wheel. He said Williams knew the risks, but drove anyway.

The trial lasted more than eight weeks, with Superstorm Sandy causing a delay. Jurors deliberated about a week, but not consecutively.

The March 12, 2011, crash happened on Interstate 95 at daybreak as Williams was ferrying a busload of gamblers to Manhattan’s Chinatown from the Mohegan Sun casino in Uncasville, Conn. The bus crashed just feet from a road sign that read: "Welcome to the Bronx."

The bus struck a guard rail, toppled over and hit a signpost that tore open the top before skittering to a stop.

The victims were mostly Chinese men and women over the age of 40 who were regulars at casinos. About half died. The others were injured. Survivors missing limbs testified in court, including Ren Xiang Yao, who spoke of how he lost both arms when he raised them up instinctively when the bus crashed. He said he didn’t see the crash — though he remembers when the rescue crews arrived.

"I used all the energy I had left and said, ‘I’m here, I’m here, please come rescue me,’" he said. "By the time I woke up, I was already in the hospital."

Yao was hospitalized for nearly a month and had several operations.

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