Is he ‘just saying’ he’s sorry? Families of 15 killed in Chinatown bus crash react as driver is set free

Concourse, The Bronx (PIX11) — He was behind the wheel of a bus that fell on its side, killing 15 passengers and injuring 15 others, but a jury that considered manslaughter and other felony charges against bus driver Ophadell Williams declared him not guilty Friday.  The verdicts on more than 50 charges against Williams, 41, upset the few family members of victims of the crash who were in the courtroom, and sent the case from criminal court into a long stretch of civil litigation.

Because Williams had been unable to post his $250,000 bail after his arrest shortly after the crash in March of last year, he had to stay on Rikers Island pending a trial and verdict.  The latter came at just before noon on Friday.

“How do you find the defendant on the charge of manslaughter in the second degree?” asked the bailiff.  “Not guilty,” the jury forewoman said firmly.  That was the first of 15 such charges, followed by 15 charges of criminally negligent homicide on which the jury found Williams not guilty as well.

He also faced 23 counts of assault.  The jury found him not guilty on all of those.  The only individual charge Williams faced was aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle, a misdemeanor punishable by 30 days in prison and a $500 fine. The jury found him guilty of that offense, and that one only.

Williams was driving the bus that swerved on I-95 in the Northern Bronx near the Westchester County Line on March 12, 2011.  The bus flipped on its side, hitting the thick steel stanchion of a highway sign, and shearing off the roof of the bus.  The crash that Williams’s own attorney called horrific decapitated some of the 15 people on board who died.  Fifteen others, including passenger Ren Xiang Yao, were severely injured.  Yao lost both of his forearms in the crash.

He testified against Williams during the eight-week trial.  “The woman who was [sitting] next to me disappeared,” he said during part of his testimony, in which his missing extremities were evident.

However, his statements in court did not sway the jury, which deliberated for a week before coming to a verdict late Thursday afternoon.  For logistical reasons involving a juror, the verdict was not unsealed until late Friday morning.  One charge after another was read by the bailiff, after which the forewoman read, “Not guilty,” time and time again, with the exception of the very last charge, the unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle misdemeanor.

Ophadell Williams

Ophadell Williams had said through his attorney on more than one occasion that he was sorry for what had happened.

Having served far more of his sentence already during his incarceration while awaiting trial, the judge allowed Williams to walk out of court a free man.  Apart from saying in a low voice that he was happy, the bus driver had nothing to say, as had been the case during his trial, in which he did not testify.

His attorney, however, had much to say after the successful outcome.  “Honest to God I’m elated,” Patrick Bruno told PIX11 News outside of court, as he reacted to the verdict and analyzed the legal arguments of either side in the case of Ophadell Williams.

“I didn’t think [the jury] bought the concept that A) he was so fatigued he was out of control and B) I want to believe they thought that a tractor trailer was at least a contributing factor [in the crash],” Bruno said, listing the arguments of the prosecution and defense, respectively.

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“If he really means it,” said Florence Wong, whose father, Don Li, 76, was killed in the crash. “I don’t know if [Williams] is just saying that or if he has it deeply in his heart. There’s a difference.

Bruno had shown evidence over the course of the trial that the bus Williams drove from Mohegan Sun Casino in Eastern Connecticut had been cut off by a tractor trailer on I-95, forcing the bus driver to swerve off the highway and flip his bus, with tragic consequences.

“The [jury] could have found that they believed that I didn’t disprove beyond a reasonable doubt that the truck didn’t cut him off,” prosecutor Gary Weil told PIX11 News.  Weill’s main argument was that Williams had knowingly gone so long without adequate sleep in the days before incident that the bus driver’s fatigue caused him to crash.

Ophadell Williams had said through his attorney on more than one occasion that he was sorry for what had happened, but one of only two victims’ family members who were in court said she was unsure if she can forgive him.

“If he really means it,” said Florence Wong, whose father, Don Li, 76, was killed in the crash.  “I don’t know if [Williams] is just saying that or if he has it deeply in his heart.  There’s a difference.

Wong’s family is now among more than two dozen families and individuals pursuing civil lawsuits related to the crash.  Williams’s lawyer estimates that the damages sought are in the billions of dollars.  However, with Friday’s verdict, those civil cases are not likely to feature Williams in any major role.

The bus company he had worked for, insurance companies and the driver of the tractor trailer that a witness had said left the crash scene are not the main players in future litigation.


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