On September 27, 2012, the trial began for 41 year old Ophadell Williams, the tour bus driver charged with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in the March 12, 2011 accident on I-95 in the Bronx which killed 15 passengers. The prosecution contended that Williams was fatigued and speeding when he lost control of the bus while returning from the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Connecticut. As we originally reported on September 6, 2011, the bus struck a guardrail, flipped over, struck a stanchion and the roof was sheared off, killing 15 people and seriously injuring 23, including one man whose arms were torn off trying to protect his head. Williams was indicted by a Bronx County Grand Jury on 15 counts of vehicular manslaughter; 15 counts of criminally negligent homicide; and 23 counts of vehicular assault. Additionally, he was charged with reckless driving and aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle.
In its opening statement, the prosecution contended that Williams was fatigued and driving recklessly, swerving in an out of lanes and never slowing down, when he lost control of the bus and struck a signpost stanchion on I-95 in the Bronx, “peeling off the roof like a sardine can and wreaking death and destruction.” The prosecutor acknowledged that Williams was not on drugs and was not intoxicated, but argued that Williams was so sleep deprived that it affected his reflexes as if he were intoxicated.
Williams’ defense attorney repeated the defense that his client made since the accident happened, that he was cut off by a tractor-trailer, and that this maneuver led to the fatal crash. He also argued that despite Williams’ own injuries, he made a valiant effort to rescue some of the passengers from the wrecked bus.
Investigators have never been able to substantiate that there was any tractor trailer involvement in the accident. What is known is that Williams was traveling at approximately 78 miles per hour shortly before the crash (the speed limit in that area is 55 m.p.h). and there is no evidence to show that Williams either slowed down or downshifted before the accident.
To prove that Mr. Williams is guilty of vehicular manslaughter, the prosecution must establish that Williams knew or should have known of a substantial and unjustifiable risk in his operation of the bus and disregarded the risk. For the criminally negligent homicide charges, there is a somewhat lesser burden of proof on the prosecution, to prove that Mr. Williams “failed to perceive” the substantial and unjustifiable risk in driving while fatigued and speeding, in contrast to a reasonable person who would have perceived these risks and avoided the conduct. Frequently, the prosecution files different levels of charges, so that if they do not obtain a conviction on the highest level, they have the opportunity to establish the lesser charges and still get a guilty verdict.
To substantiate their contention that Williams drove the bus recklessly and was speeding, the prosecution called Robert and Sonia Varley to the stand. Mr. Varley was driving with his wife south on I-95 at approximately 4:15 am when they observed a brightly colored bus weaving in and out of lanes and speeding. Mr. Varley testified that he was using his cruise control in the range of 63 to 73 m.p.h., and Williams would pass him and then slow down. Varley thought the driver might have been intoxicated and he testified that he was “afraid to be near him” and honked his horn at the bus.
The prosecution also put on testimony from some of the surviving passengers on the bus, including Truc Thanh Tran, who testified that she heard people screaming and yelling, and saw people dying. They showed the jury a 55 minute video of the investigation of the accident, replete with flattened guardrails, crushed bus parts, a blood splattered metal pole and shoes and cell phones spread around the bus. Ms. Tran also testified that the man seated next to her died in the accident, and that she was pinned in her seat and had to be removed by emergency personnel. In his cross examination of Ms. Tran, the defense attorney for Mr. Williams attempted to show that Ms. Tran’s injuries were not serious and that she, along with numerous family members and surviving passengers, are suing Mr. Williams and the bus company, World Wide Travel, in civil lawsuits for money damages. Other passengers were expected to testify during the trial, which is expected to proceed for several weeks.
Mr. Williams has been in jail since September of 2011, as he has not been able to raise the $250,000 bail. World Wide Travel has since gone out of business but the tour bus industry appears to be a thriving business, despite significant safety concerns.
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