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August 1, 2014

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Jessica Williams found guilty in deaths of six teen-agers

A 21-year-old former exotic dancer was found guilty Friday of having drugs in her system when her van ran off the freeway and killed six teen-agers last year.

But the jury found Jessica Williams innocent of several charges including involuntary manslaughter, reckless driving and being under the influence of drugs during the fatal crash. She faced six counts for each charge, one for each of the six victims.

Williams admitted taking drugs before falling asleep at the wheel March 19 and plowing through the teens who were picking up litter in a freeway median. But her defense lawyer John Watkins argued that Williams was not under the influence of drugs at the time of the crash.

The jury deliberated for little more than a day after a trio of prosecutors - Deputy District Attorneys Gary Booker, James Hartsell, Bruce Nelson - finished closing arguments Wednesday.

Judge Mark Gibbons set sentencing for March 30.

Williams could receive from two to 20 years on each of the six charges. Gibbons could impose concurrent or consecutive sentences that could have Williams spend as much as 120 years in prison.

Watkins indicated he would appeal.

The crash came as Williams and her roommate drove home after a sleepless overnight visit to a state park 50 miles from Las Vegas. Her white Ford Aerostar, registered to her father in Littlefield, Ariz., ran off the freeway at 75 mph and plowed through the teens.

Killed were Scott Garner Jr., 14; Alberto Puig, 16; Anthony Smith, 14; Rebeccah Glicken, 15; Malena Stoltzfus, 15, and Jennifer Booth, 16.

The Las Vegas-area teens were among 45 youthful offenders taken to the freeway median by the Clark County Youth Services Department to pick up trash while working off sentences for minor juvenile court infractions.

A former volunteer firefighter who testified that he saw the van leave the road in a cloud of dust said he didn't realize at first that the objects thrown into the air were the orange-vested youths. But then reality struck.

"I looked down and knew instantly," Randy Liles said, "God had already taken them home."

A youth crew supervisor testified that Williams and her passenger, Tania Ozarek-Smith, hugged and smoked cigarettes while passers-by checked the bodies for pulses.

Williams did not testify.

The jury heard grand jury testimony from Ozarek-Smith, Williams' roommate and co-worker, who said Williams turned to her after the four seconds of tragedy and asked if it was all a dream.

Ozarek-Smith disappeared after a grand jury indicted Williams on 20 charges including one count of driving under the influence of drugs causing death for each victim. The indictment provided for lesser felony charges - six counts each - of reckless driving or involuntary manslaughter.

Williams did not contest two charges of drug use and possession.

She admitted smoking marijuana about two hours before the 1:40 p.m. crash and taking the hallucinogen-stimulant Ecstasy earlier after getting off work at a Las Vegas topless bar at 2 a.m.

Prosecutors said she fell asleep because of the combined effects of the drugs. They presented evidence that Williams had 5.5 nanograms per milliliter of marijuana's active ingredient, tetrahydrocannabinol, in her blood along with trace amounts of Ecstasy.

Nevada state law presumes a person is impaired if they have 2 nanograms of THC in their blood.

Nevada Highway Patrol troopers testified that Williams voluntarily retrieved a marijuana pipe from her van after the crash and directed them to a bag of marijuana near the front seat.

But Watkins challenged the prosecution's blood tests, brought in witnesses who said Williams didn't seem impaired and enlisted a sleep expert to try to show the jury that Williams fell asleep behind the wheel due to fatigue, not drugs.

Watkins had wanted to challenge the state law, passed in October 1999, that presumes anyone with 2 nanograms of THC in their blood is impaired. In pretrial moves, the state Supreme Court rejected the challenge and Gibbons ruled that Watkins could not make that argument to the jury.

Watkins sought instead to make a distinction between drug use and impairment - projecting "Not Impaired" in big letters on a screen during opening statements and repeating the phrase throughout closing arguments.

Gibbons also prevented the defense from blaming the county and Silver State Disposal Service, the trash hauler that paid $46,000 a year for the litter program, for putting the teens to work next to the freeway.

The teens' families have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Williams, the county and Silver State. No trial date has been set in that civil case.

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