NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) – The driver behind the wheel during one of the deadliest traffic accidents in New York City’s history is now a free man.
On Friday, Ophadell Williams was cleared of the most serious charges against him — manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide — in connection with the March 12, 2011 crash that killed 15 people in the Bronx.
Eighteen more passengers were injured.
Williams was found guilty of aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle in the 3rd degree — a technical violation involving his license. He did, however, have proper credentials and training to operate the charter bus.
A visibly emotional Williams rubbed his eyes and put his head down as the jury read 53 not guilty verdicts in court Friday. On the final count, Williams was sentenced to 30 days time served and a $500 fine.
1010 WINS’ Sonia Rincon reports
“He had great faith that he would be vindicated,” Williams’ lawyer, Patrick 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.’”
Some of the crash victims’ loved ones also spoke out on Friday after the verdict.
“I hope he knows that he’s responsible for the accident,” Florence Wong told reporters, including CBS 2′s Sean Hennessey.
Wong’s father was among the 32 passengers aboard the bus that was returning from Mohegan Sun when it flipped into a metal signpost on Interstate 95 that sliced through the vehicle. He was killed.
“I was disappointed with the verdict,” Wong told CBS 2′s Derricke Dennis. “Mr. Williams has to live with blood on his hands, with 15 people who died.”
Williams told investigators a tractor-trailer cut him off, but investigators never found any evidence or witnesses to back that up.
Instead, prosecutors said the 41-year-old was dangerously sleep deprived and that the impairment was the equivalent of driving under the influence.
Wong said she sat through the trial never believing Williams’ story.
“Yes I believe he is [guilty], even though [he was] found not guilty under the law, but morally he’s guilty,” Wong said.
“They tried to build a case around sleepiness,” Bruno said.
Williams’ lawyer said the verdict makes it more difficult to convict someone who may be sleep deprived.
“This was another step, another legal step, opposing that concept,” Bruno said.
Williams never testified in his own defense and late Friday he came home to his family, with 15 deaths on his conscience but not his criminal record.
“It doesn’t stun me, but I believe that we had enough evidence to show the jury that he should have been held criminally responsible,” prosecutor Gary Weil said.
The jury foreperson wouldn’t shed any insight into the panel’s reasoning.
Williams is not out of the woods. He and his bus company are facing more than two dozen lawsuits from the families of victims.
WCBS 880′s Irene Cornell reports
The jury heard from 55 witnesses during the three-month trial.
In June, The National Transportation Safety Board called it “one of the deadliest” crashes federal officials have ever investigated.
The NTSB said that the accident was probably caused by driver fatigue and a bus company that provided too little safety oversight. It stopped short of saying Williams had fallen asleep.
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