The Jessica Williams Case in Las Vegas
On a Sunday afternoon, March 19, 2000, when she was 20 years old, Jessica Williams drove her white Ford Aerostar minivan down Interstate 15 in Las Vegas. She and her roommate, Tania Ozarek-Smith, who was asleep in the passenger seat, had spent the previous sleepless night with friends at the Valley of Fire state park and nature preserve in Overton, 50 miles outside of Las Vegas, and were nearing the end of their drive back home when Jessica fell asleep while behind the wheel. Other drivers on the Interstate around her would confirm that the white van, which had been observed to be driving normally and without any indication for concern, suddenly began to drift to the right. In the passenger seat, Jessica’s roommate would later testify that she was awoken when the van drifted into the median. She looked over at Jessica and saw that she had fallen asleep and was no longer in control of the van. By then, there was not enough time to prevent what would happen next.
The incidents that followed would mark the beginning of what would be one of the most complicated and hard-fought legal battles in the entire history of Nevada. The case has captivated the attention of people across the nation, not only due to its complexity but also due to the implications that the case could have for people who are in a similar situation to Jessica’s.
Below, we have outlined the entire history of Jessica’s case, starting with the horrific accident that has forever changed her life and the lives of so many others going all the way through the ongoing appeals battles as Jessica’s attorney fights to prove that her verdict and sentencing were more than just complex and unordinary – they were a major miscarriage of justice.
The Accident of Jessica Williams
At 1:40 p.m., Jessica’s van went off the road and traveled over 200 feet at 75mph before striking seven teenagers who were picking up trash along the side of the highway, south of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. They were there that day with a larger group of other teens – 45 in total, as well as seven adult supervisors, all of whom were part of Clark County’s Juvenile Courts community work program, which was created as an alternative option for teens who had been convicted of misdemeanor offenses, giving them the opportunity to participate in community service in lieu of serving time in the juvenile detention center.
The collision was fatal for all but one of the teenagers who were struck by the van. Five of them were pronounced dead at the scene. The other two injured teens, Jennifer Booth and Liliana Rodriguez, as well as Jessica and her roommate, Tania, were all taken to University Medical Center (UMC). Liliana Rodriguez and Tania Ozarek-Smith were treated for minor injuries and released. Jennifer Booth, who had been flown to UMC by medical helicopter, died of her injuries the following morning. Jessica Williams, who had been treated for minor injuries, was taken into custody as she was released from the hospital.
Jessica Williams and her attorney both maintain that the cause of this accident was the fact that Jessica Williams fell asleep at the wheel. However, the presence of marijuana in Jessica’s bloodstream provided the prosecution with an entirely different argument.
The teenagers who were killed as a result of the accident that took place on March 19th were publicly identified on Monday, March 20, 2000 as Scott Garner Jr. (14), Anthony Smith (14), Rebeccah Glicken (15), Malina Stoltzfus (15), Alberto Puig (16), and Jennifer Booth (16).
As law enforcement arrived on the scene immediately following the tragic accident and began to piece together the events that had occurred, Jessica was very forthcoming about what had happened in the time leading up to the accident. She willingly admitted to officers that she had fallen asleep while driving right before the crash, as well as admitting that she had smoked marijuana a few hours prior to the accident and had also taken Ecstasy the night before, following her shift at a topless bar in Las Vegas at 2 a.m. Nevada Highway Patrol officers at the scene that day also testified later that Jessica even voluntarily directed them to a bag of marijuana and a marijuana pipe, which she retrieved for them upon request. She complied with a blood test, giving three samples of her blood, which eventually revealed that Jessica had 5.5 nanograms per milliliter of tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC and the active ingredient in marijuana, in her blood, as well as trace amounts of Ecstasy. Jessica was taken into custody and held in the Clark County Detention Center, where her bond was set at a $5 million.
While Jessica remained in custody, her attorney, John G. Watkins, Esquire, began fighting what would turn out to be an ongoing battle to ensure that as his client, she would be represented fairly in what was even then becoming something of an infamous case for a variety of reasons.
Jessica was charged, in part, with:
● Six counts of driving while intoxicated and/or driving with a prohibited substance in her bloodstream
● Six counts of reckless driving
● Six counts of involuntary manslaughter
● One count of possession of a controlled substance
● One count of using a controlled substance
Before and During The Trial
Jessica’s attorney, John Watkins, sought to have what he felt was an excessively high bond reduced from $5 million, pointing out at this time that the purpose of the amount set for bonds should reflect to some degree the probability of a possible conviction, which he felt was unlikely based on evidence that Jessica was not impaired by drugs at the time of the accident. This included testimony taken from the doctors who had treated her at UMC immediately following the accident. This motion was denied by Judge Mark Gibbons due to the seriousness of the charges against her and the considerably lengthy time frame of a potential 120-year prison sentence if she was convicted.
The prosecution, whose case against Jessica would be built around proving that the accident occurred when she fell asleep as a direct result of the impairment caused by the drugs in her system, were successful in convincing a grand jury to indict her on a DUI law that had been passed in the state of Nevada less than a year prior to the accident, which considered anyone found to have at least 2 nanograms of marijuana present per milliliter of their blood when tested to be legally “under the influence” of the drug. Watkins called the constitutionality of this law into question, stressing a lack of reliable, measurable proof that marijuana impairs users to a degree that they are unable to without the risk of harming themselves or others.
Judge Gibbons also ruled prior to the trial that Watkins would not be allowed to use the possible negligence of other parties involved in the accident who may have some responsibility, including an effort to place some of the blame at the feet of both Clark County and the Silver State Disposal Service, the trash hauling company who had paid the county $46,000 a year to have juvenile offenders in their community work program pick up trash on the roadways. It was the opinion of the defense that the Silver State Disposal Service had not taken the measures needed to make the conditions near the road where the teenage crew members were at work picking up litter as safe as they should have, by failing to put up proper warning signs near the roadway where the teens were working – only about 12 feet from the edge of the road – in turn putting the young crew at a much greater risk and with tragic consequences for which Silver State Disposal Service should have been partially responsible. A wrongful death civil lawsuit was filed against Jessica Williams, Clark County, and the Silver State Disposal Service by the families of the teens who were killed in the accident on March 19, 2000.
At the end of the two-week-long trial, the jury was given the instruction that for a guilty verdict, they could find Jessica Williams guilty of either reckless driving, involuntary manslaughter charges or the DUI charges, which were further broken down to two options for each count, as reflected on the verdict form – (1) driving under the influence and (2) driving with a prohibited substance in the bloodstream. They were also instructed that Jessica could be found guilty under either one or both of the DUI theories presented, but could not be found guilty of both the involuntary manslaughter and reckless driving, and one or both of the DUI theories.
The verdict returned by the jury was and is still considered by many to be somewhat unusual. After only one day of deliberation by the jurors, Jessica was found guilty and convicted of six counts of driving with a prohibited substance in her blood, one count of possession of a controlled substance and one count of use of a controlled substance.
However, the jury also found Jessica to be innocent of many of the very serious potential charges that she faced – all six counts each of reckless driving, involuntary manslaughter and most notably in regards to this particular case, the jurors ultimately determined that she was indeed innocent of being under the influence of drugs at the time of the accident which would change the lives of so many.
Watkins compared Jessica’s verdict to a baseball call, pondering how she could at the same time be found both guilty and not guilty of violating the laws in question. He said, “You’re safe and you’re out. Wait a minute. I’m safe and I’m out? You’re safe and you’re out. That’s what we have.”
More than just a contradictory interpretation of the law, Watkins has argued that the ruling in Jessica William’s case is an instance of double jeopardy. Double jeopardy dictates that you cannot be tried twice for the same crime. However, since Jessica was somehow found both guilty and not guilty of violating several laws, her case, in a way, has already been tried twice, creating a unique form of double jeopardy that Watkins argues is illegal.
In spite of the fact that the jury agreed that Jessica was not impaired at the time of the accident, she was still found guilty of having more than the legal limit of marijuana in her system and was sentenced to 48 years in prison.
The Ongoing Fight: Appeals and Paroles
In February 2018, Jessica made her fifth appearance before the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners hearing representative, Maurice Silva, and Chairwoman, Connie Bisbee. The Nevada Parole Board are by now very well acquainted with Jessica’s case. She has already been granted parole for four of the six convictions with which she was charged in 2001, and following this most recent plea for early release on the fifth conviction, a decision is expected to be issued by the commissioners on March 14, 2018.
In October 2017, Jessica Williams received a major break after the Nevada Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling that “good time” credits that Jessica earned in prison only counted toward the maximum sentence. The Nevada Supreme Court ruled that the credits Jessica earned could apply to her minimum sentence as well. This was a huge victory for Jessica, as it will likely greatly reduce the time she must spend in prison.
In the ongoing court cases, Watkins has argued that there were several problems in the way Jessica’s case was initially handled. In addition to her contradictory verdict which Watkins argues is a form of double jeopardy, another mishandling of justice that Watkins has argued took place in her initial trial had to do with the fact that Watkins was not allowed to test the blood sample that was taken from Williams after the accident.
Right now, Jessica is serving time on the fifth of her six sentences after being paroled on the first four. Earning parole on these first four sentences has been a huge victory for Jessica thus far. However, both she and her attorney are still fighting to have her sentence reduced even further.
Now a 38-year-old adult woman, Jessica Williams has spent almost half of her life in prison. At her most recent parole hearing, she admitted that in spite of her ongoing efforts to reduce her sentence over the last 18 years, she also finds the prospect of her eventual freedom to be a little frightening.
This level of candor does not come as a surprise to anyone who has either been in Jessica’s corner from the beginning or who have come to understand and offer support to the young woman, whose ongoing feelings of guilt and remorse for any responsibility she knows she had in the tragedy that played itself on that Sunday afternoon in March 2000 are still painfully clear.
Least surprised by Jessica’s lasting feelings of guilt may be her dedicated attorney, John Watkins, whose commitment to her case has been unwavering, seeing it through a lengthy process of appeals with both the Nevada Supreme Court and all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he and equally dedicated co-counsel, Ellen Bezian, argued that a DUI law which finds people who are not actually impaired while driving of a DUI based on such a minute presence of marijuana in their blood is unjust.
Changes in Nevada’s Marijuana Laws Since 2001
Speaking recently about the case, Watkins addressed some of the big changes that Nevada’s laws on marijuana have gone through since the time of Jessica’s trial back in 2001. In spite of the legalization of marijuana for both medical and recreational use in the state, the DUI statute at the core of Jessica’s sentence is still being enforced. Watkins argues that most people carrying a legal medical marijuana card today would easily be found to exceed the amount of the drug found in Jessica’s blood at the time of the accident if they were tested and still be considered legal, even though they would only be considered to be impaired if their actions led to the harm of others.
These changing laws only work to further complicate the already messy verdict in Jessica Williams’s case and should certainly play a role in deciding if this verdict is just.
Jessica Williams’s case is one that has garnered national attention due both to its seriousness and the complexity of both the verdict and the sentence. It is also a case where the fight is still ongoing. Thus far, the dedication of John Watkins has already helped Jessica tremendously as she tries to reduce her enormously long prison time. The ruling by Nevada’s Supreme Court that prisoners could be eligible for parole before serving their full minimum sentence was a big victory for Jessica as well as other prisoners who are in similar situations, and we are hopeful that more victories such as this will follow in Jessica’s ongoing case.