STOCKTON, Calif. (AP) — The driver of a private bus in Northern California that crashed in 2008 and killed 11 passengers headed to a casino has been released from prison after his sentence was reduced because of changes in state law.
After nearly 12 years in custody, Quinton Watts, 64, was released Wednesday from California State Prison-Solano in Vacaville. His supporters traveled to Vacaville to pick him up, including two of his three daughters who went in an Uber. But they had to meet him at a train station him 37 miles away in downtown Sacramento where prison staff had driven him, the Sacramento Bee reported Friday.
Dressed in sweatpants, a beanie and surgical mask with gray goatee hairs showing through the side, Watts didn’t look like his daughter, Daisha Watts, had remembered from 12 years ago.
She was seven years old when she last saw him in person. But when she walked into Sacramento Valley Station, she recognized him immediately.
“I remembered his face,” she said.
Colusa County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Thompson took nine years off Watts’ 26-year prison term during a Jan. 25 hearing, ruling that he was properly sentenced at the time but that subsequent legal changes to sentencing enhancements made him eligible to have his sentence shortened.
Watts was driving the bus with 40 passengers from the Sacramento area to a casino near Colusa on Oct. 5, 2008, when the bus veered off the road.
Passengers said Watts seemed to be asleep or unconscious, and prosecutors alleged that he was sleep deprived and hadn’t properly cared for his insulin-dependent diabetes before the crash.
To this day, many people still remember the California Highway Patrol’s early claim that Watts might have been drunk at the time of the crash. He was not drunk.
“That was a terrible accident,” Quinton Watts said at the train station Wednesday. “It should have never happened. I lost my family member as well as they lost theirs.”
“It happened,” he added. “It was a terrible thing. And I just pray that somehow, someway they can forgive me for even being involved in that.”
An investigation by the newspaper found that a physician assistant had erroneously cleared Watts to drive despite his history of having a seizure disorder.
It said Watts’ attorney did not put on much of a defense, presenting just one witness; that the prosecution featured statements that Watts made while he was medicated at a hospital hours after the crash; and questioned whether Watts, who is Black, was unfairly convicted by a jury with no Black jurors.
John Poyner, the former Colusa County district attorney who prosecuted Watts, told the paper he didn’t know about the seizure disorder and said Watts had paid the price and should be released from prison for a crash he didn’t cause on purpose.
On the ride back to Stockton, Daisha Watts pointed out landmarks to her father. Where she used to go hang out after school. A lake they can go swimming in.
He was trying to take it all in and tinkered with his new phone. It wouldn’t work, he thought. He’d never seen one quite like it — when he was arrested, flip phones with T9 text messages were still top-of-the-line.
A few minutes after arriving at his family’s home in Stockton, Watts stepped out the front door, ambled down a short path and put his hands on the bark of a tree. He wrapped his arms around its trunk. Then he exhaled.
“Something as simple as this means so much to a prisoner,” he said.