By Associated Press - Friday, January 29, 2021

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - The driver of a private bus in Northern California that crashed in 2008 and killed 11 passengers headed to a casino is being released from prison after his sentence was reduced due to changes in state law.

Quinton Watts, 64, was told Friday that he will be released next week, The Sacramento Bee reported.

Colusa County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Thompson took nine years off Watts’ 26-year prison term during a hearing Monday, 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.

In an earlier story, however, The Bee 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.

The judge did not address those allegations in his ruling.

“It should be noted 11 people died because of Watts’ criminal negligence,” Thompson said, according to the paper. “That being said, Mr. Watts is entitled to a benefit in a change in the law.”

The shorter sentence means he became eligible for parole in 2018 instead of his original eligibility date of 2027, determined the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. He remained in California State Prison, Solano, in Vacaville southwest of Sacramento, on Friday while the department awaited the court documents, said spokeswoman Dana Simas.

The crash happened on Watts’ first time driving to Colusa Casino Resort aboard a bus owned by his stepfather, Daniel Cobb, who sat behind him, tried to right the careening bus, and was among those killed.

“It’s been a hard, long road, but it’s almost over. It’s not like it’s gonna be easy when I get out. This will still be hard. But this is over with anyway,” Watts said in a brief interview from prison Friday, the paper said.

He was convicted of 11 counts of felony vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. Jurors also added sentencing enhancements of 21 counts of causing great bodily injury.

Corrections Secretary Kathleen Allison last month asked the judge to reconsider Watts’ sentence based on a court ruling in 2015 that found state law barred applying the enhancement to such crimes.

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