Ophadell Williams: Let's Get Real About Felony Convictions
Should Ophadell Williams have ever been let anywhere near the steering wheel of a tour bus? Somehow, this question is now being asked by those looking for answers about why the World Wide Travel bus he was driving earlier this month crashed on I-95 in New York, killing 15 folks on their way home from a casino trip. Several of the survivors suffered horrible injuries, including the loss of limbs.
Like all accidents, it never should have happened. That’s a truism.
The New York Post reports that the 40-year -old driver of the bus has a serious criminal record. According to the Post, Williams was convicted of manslaughter and of larceny prior to becoming a bus driver. He also lied to state police officers when receiving speeding tickets, giving a false name; his license to drive was briefly suspended when he failed to address these charges in court. Ophadell Williams has a past.
Now New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is jumping into the fray. How, he demands, did a man with this kind of criminal record ever get licensed to drive a bus? The national Transportation Safety Board is on a crusade, too. This accident should never have happened: how can another be prevented?
The question about Mr. Williams’ criminal history has superficial appeal. But considered fairly it should be regarded as little more than a search for quick and meaningless answers and political grandstanding.
Twenty years ago, Mr. Williams was convicted for his role in a fatal stabbing. He was found guilty of a crime. He did a brief period in prison, and was released. He was punished. He payed his debt to society. Nothing in that crime suggests he would be unfit ever to drive a bus. Once he was released into society, his debt paid, his time served, and the gods of rehabilitation propitiated, he had to go about the hard work of finding a place in a society that forever scorns those convicted of a felony.
Then in 2002, he was convicted of grand larceny for taking a check endorsed for almost $84,000 from a Police Athletic League fund. He served about three years in prison for that felony, and was released in 2002. This, blemish, too, marked him and limited his career prospects. But if anyone can limn the secret connection between a crime of financial theft and the ability to drive a bus, I’d like to see the reasoning. Once he was released from prison, the task of supporting himself was now infinitely harder.
And let’s not ignore that fact that Mr. Williams had a few other minor scrapes with the law. Let’s just say the road to manhood was a difficult one for Ophadell Williams. It is for many folks.
Yet the fact remains that on the day of the bus accident he was doing what most of us do, and what all of us are expected to do: he was working for a living. If he was living the stereotype that Cuomo and the good bureaucrats at the NTSB will now seek to employ to CDL licensing, he’d be running numbers, or a crack den, or young women. Williams is a multiple loser in the criminal law’s lottery of life. But he refused to give up. He manned up, got the best job he could, and then went to work each day. Why aren’t the politicians telling that story?
No one is the sum of their worst moments. Some folks make horrendous mistakes that land them in prison. While there, we punish them, we deter others from committing crimes by making examples of the convicted, and then we set about the work of rehabilitating them so they can rejoin society, taking a productive role. Leaping to the conclusion that because Mr. Williams was a felon, he should never have been licensed to drive a tour bus will serve only to slam the door of opportunity shut on countless others who are released from prison and then must struggle beneath the disabling weight of a felony conviction.
Mr. Williams may not have gotten enough rest before the crash earlier this month. He may have driven recklessly. He might not have kept a log book, dotting every "i" and crossing every "t" to the satisfaction of federal regulators. Mr. Williams might, in fact, be at fault for the accident. But he is not at fault because he once stabbed a man 20 years ago, or stole a check from a charitable organization. To suggest otherwise is to strain the concept of causation to the breaking point, and to elevate prejudice into some new doctrine that holds once, even twice, a felon, forever unfit for anything other than scorn.
In the great rush to do something, anything, to nurture the fantasy that we can outlaw chance, bad luck, poor decision-making, and thereby eliminate accidents, let’s not succumb to the sort of moral panic that will make the world even less welcoming from those who have paid their debt to society after grand mistakes. Yes, Ophadell Williams is a convicted felon. And, yes, he got in a bus accident that took many lives. But only the loosest of reasoning supports the conclusion that his criminal record somehow caused the accident. That’s just stupid. Governor Cuomo ought to know better than to go whistling down this fool’s lane.