Can You Commit Manslaughter in Your Sleep?

The issue of drowsy driving has been a growing presence in the media lately.

In New York State, this issue was brought to the fore by a horrific crash in Bronx County. 15 passengers were killed, and many others injured, in March 2011 when an excursion bus hit a guard rail at high speed and was torn apart. There were allegations that the driver might have been nodding off at the time of the accident.

A grand jury reviewed the matter in August 2011, and issued a 55 count indictment. It charged the driver, Ophadell Williams, according to a press release by the Bronx District Attorney, with

fifteen counts of Manslaughter in the 2nd degree, and fifteen counts of Criminally Negligent Homicide in the deaths of fifteen passengers, seven counts of Assault in the 2nd degree and sixteen counts of Assault in the 3rd degree for injuries to fifteen other passengers. The grand jury also charged Williams with one count of Reckless Driving and one count of Aggravated Unlicensed Operation of a Motor Vehicle in the 3rd degree.

On December 7, 2012, Mr. Williams was acquitted of every single one of those felonies, as reported above by CBS and by the New York Times.

You can commit manslaughter in the 2nd degree (Section 125.15 of the Penal Law) by recklessly causing another person’s death. A person acts recklessly, when “he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk.” The legislature has also said that

The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.

You commit criminally negligent homicide, as you might have guessed, by causing another person’s death through ‘criminal negligence’. Just as with 2nd degree manslaughter, you must take a ‘substantial and unjustifiable’ risk. Whereas recklessness is disregarding the risk, however, criminal negligence is the failure to perceive a risk

of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.

The legal theory of the prosecution would have been that by continuing to drive when he was aware that he was liable to fall asleep Mr. Williams acted recklessly. In the alternative, if he continued to drive when any reasonable person would have known he was liable to fall asleep he acted with criminal negligence.

The People failed to prove that Mr. Williams acted recklessly or with criminal negligence. In fact, per the Times, this appears to have been an uphill battle from the start:

[A]ware that the charges would be difficult to prove, prosecutors presented Mr. Williams’s cellphone and car-rental records . . . and cited the findings of a sleep-disorders specialist who surmised that Mr. Williams had averaged about three hours a day in the three-day period before the crash. They presented evidence that Mr. Williams was speeding and driving erratically before the bus flipped over.

It should be noted that after days of deliberation – following weeks of harrowing testimony – the jury did find Mr. Williams guilty of a crime: aggravated unlicensed operation in the 3rd degree. According to the Times, Mr. Williams’ license had been suspended for failure to pay some traffic tickets, and he drove anyway (see our earlier entry “How to Be a Criminal Without Really Trying: New York’s Scofflaw Provisions“).

Mr. Williams had been in jail, awaiting trial, for 15 months. The maximum penalty for aggravated unlicensed operation in the 3rd degree? 30 days.