The New York Criminal Law Blog

Ophadell Williams On Trial for 2011 Bus Crash

Accidents happen. If a man falls asleep while driving and crashes, that shouldn't be a crime, right? Not exactly. Sometimes, depending on the facts and circumstances, something as common as a tired driver can lead to charges of criminally negligent homicide or manslaughter.

Ophadell Williams told investigators that he was cut off by a semi-trailer, which led to him swerving and losing control of the vehicle. Instead, the investigation and witnesses indicate that there was no semi-trailer. There was an allegedly speeding bus, driving erratically, that drove off the side of the road, flipped, and had the roof sheared off by a pole. The brakes were never applied. The transmission was never downshifted. There was no effort to slow down before the fatal crash, reports Reuters.

Prosecutors believe, and are trying to convince the jury, that Williams was not only speeding, but fatigued. The official investigation fell short of definitively stating that he was asleep at the time of the crash, but it did say that fatigue was likely a factor. Witnesses say that the bus was driving erratically for miles. The bus was allegedly travelling at 78 mph (its top speed) in a 55 mph zone when it crashed.

Prosecutors described the carnage in their opening statement. Thirteen people died in the crash. Two died at the hospital. One man used his arms to protect his head and had the arms torn off. Another man lost an ear.

According to The New York Times, Williams is facing multiple charges of manslaughter. Other outlets have also reported criminally negligent homicide charges, likely as an alternative, because a conviction on both charges would constitute double jeopardy. Both charges involve causing the death of another person due to unintentional but negligent or reckless conduct.

The manslaughter charges require proof of reckless conduct, which would require that the prosecution show that Williams knew of a substantial and unjustifiable risk and disregarded it.

The criminally negligent homicide charge requires a similar, but lesser showing that Williams failed to perceive the substantial and unjustifiable risk presented by driving while fatigued and speeding, where a reasonable person would have. This charge is far less severe than manslaughter.

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