NEW YORK CITY — The Chinatown bus driver charged with killing 15 people in a horrific crash in The Bronx last year was found not guilty in the passengers' deaths Friday.
Ophadell Williams, 41, was acquitted of 53 counts of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, and assault charges, more than a year after the bus he was driving from Connecticut back to Chinatown careened off I-95 on March 12, 2011.
The jury convicted him of just one minor count of unlicensed operator of a motor vehicle. The judge issued him a $500 fine and time-served for that charge.
An emotional Williams kept his head bowed, covering his face with his hands and wiping tears from his eyes as the jury read the verdict following an eight-week trial.
After the hearing, a teary-eyed Williams shook his lawyer's hand and said, "Thank you so much," according to the lawyer, Patrick Bruno.
Then Williams praised the jury. "I knew they'd do the right thing," he said, according to Bruno.
Williams still faces nearly 30 civil suits filed by passengers or their families against him and the bus company, which seek a total of nearly $3 billion in damages, according to Bruno.
Outside the Bronx courthouse, Florence Wong, the daughter of one of the passengers who died in the crash, said she did not agree with the jury, but respected its decision.
But she added that she still considered Williams responsible for the crash and its aftermath.
"He’s the bus driver," said Wong, whose 76-year-old father, Don Lee, died in the crash. "He had a fiduciary duty to drive not drowsy, to get the passengers safely to their destination."
Williams was accused of dozing off behind the wheel as he drove the bus from the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut back to Chinatown.
The bus flipped over on Interstate 95 in The Bronx and a highway sign tore through it, leaving a grisly scene in its wake. In addition to the 15 passengers who died, seven suffered serious injuries, including broken bones and amputations, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB report determined that driver fatigue due to inadequate sleep, combined with lax oversight by the coach management company, likely caused the accident.
Prosecutors called more than 50 witnesses during the trial. They argued that Williams did not get enough sleep in the days leading up to the crash, which impaired his driving as severely as if he had been intoxicated. They also pointed to evidence showing he did not try to brake as the bus veered off the road.
"We put forward the best case we could," Bronx Assistant District Attorney Gary Weil said after the trial. "There was nothing more we could have given the jury."
Bruno, Williams' attorney, did not call any witnesses of his own. He argued that Williams had been cut off by a tractor-trailer and that the accident occurred as he swerved to avoid the other vehicle.
After the trial, Bruno said the jury had rejected the prosecution's attempt to equate fatigued driving with driving drunk or high.
"It’s saying if you’re going to try to make fatigue — sleepiness — a criminal legal issue in a motor vehicle accident, you have a lot, lot more to prove," Bruno said, hailing the trial as a "major case for this generation."
Williams and his family members left the courthouse immediately after the trial without addressing reporters.
Bruno said that, throughout the trial, Williams had expressed sadness over the human impact of the crash.
"He indicated that he felt terrible about all the lives that were lost," Bruno said. "But on the other hand, he felt that he was being made the martyr, the fall guy."
As the jury gave its verdict, Williams' wife and sister cried tears of joy, occasionally nodding in agreement as a juror repeated, "Not guilty," 53 times.
Across the aisle from them, several spectators in the back row were visibly agitated and sighed as the verdict was read. One woman dropped her head to her chest. Another muttered, "That's a joke."