By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A Bronx jury on Friday cleared bus driver Ophadell Williams of all counts except unlicensed driving in a crash that killed 15 passengers returning to New York's Chinatown from a Connecticut gambling outing.
Jurors rejected 53 counts against Williams, including manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault. He was convicted of a single count of third-degree aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle.
The horrific predawn crash on Interstate 95 in March 2011 triggered a federal and state crackdown on bus operators, including proposals to fit vehicles with speed-limiting devices and to require companies to get 10 years of driving records from potential employees.
As a jury forewoman read "not guilty" 53 times, Williams buried his face in his hands and rubbed tears from his eyes.
Williams, who has spent the past 15 months in jail, was immediately sentenced to 30 days already served and a $500 fine. His lawyer said Williams now has a valid driver's license, and is eligible for another commercial driver's license.
He had faced a maximum of 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors said Williams, whose driving record included 18 suspensions over two decades, was tired when his speeding bus hit a guardrail, flipped onto its side and skidded into a highway sign pole, shearing off the roof. Of 32 passengers, 15 died and 15 were injured, some severely.
The bus was returning passengers to Chinatown after a night of gambling at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut.
Defense attorney Patrick Bruno cheered the verdict. He said the jury realized that Williams was "a fall guy for a horrendous accident."
Lawsuits seeking millions of dollars have already been filed against Williams by victims and their families, said Bruno, saying the case belongs in civil court, not criminal court.
Assistant Bronx District Attorney Gary Weil said he was disappointed by the verdict.
"Everyone said it was a tough case because everyone falls asleep at the wheel at some point," he told colleagues as he left the court.
After a lengthy trial, the jury reached its verdict on Thursday during its second week of deliberations but it wasn't ready until Friday. Judge Troy Webber had ordered the verdict sealed overnight because one juror had an appointment.
Florence Wong, whose father was one of the 15 killed, said she thanked the nine women and three men on the jury for their time but did not agree with their decision.
"I hope those 15 people rest in peace," Wong added.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Doina Chiacu)