I-Team: Outcome of tragic case might be different today - 8 News NOW

I-Team: Outcome of tragic case might be different today

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Attorney John Watkins Attorney John Watkins
Attorney Ellen Bezian Attorney Ellen Bezian

LAS VEGAS --It has been 14 years since one of the worst roadside tragedies in Nevada history. A 20-year-old dancer fell asleep at the wheel and drove her car into a crowd of teenagers, killing six.

So much has changed when it comes to marijuana and the law, but one thing that hasn't changed is the strict legal limit that resulted in the driver, Jessica Williams, being sentenced to almost half a century behind bars.

Williams is still in prison but her lawyers wonder if the abrupt changes in public attitudes about pot might affect her case.

The I-Team interviewed Williams behind bars.

“There is a big dichotomy in my life where I know it’s right to fight for myself and I know I should be, but I still feel extremely guilty and I don’t want to stand up for myself,” said Jessica Williams in an interview with the I-Team in 2008.

That was her outlook the last time she was interviewed in prison. She’s been behind bars since the spring of 2000, which is when she and a girlfriend partied at Valley of Fire, then plowed their car into a group of teenagers picking up trash in the middle of 1-15. The tragic deaths of six kids made Williams a pariah, so despondent she was kept on suicide watch for more than a year. Eight years into her sentence, she still oozed remorse.

“I’d really just rather not be alive,” she said.

Williams had smoked marijuana the night before the crash. Officers at the scene, and a later jury, both agreed she was not impaired at the time but had simply fallen asleep at the wheel. Nonetheless, she was put away for as many as 48 years.

“So, it’s haunting for me. We have a young lady that is in prison who was not impaired. The whole idea behind the DUI law is to put impaired people away. Punish them. Jessica wasn’t impaired,” attorney John Watkins said.

“Her spirits have improved tremendously, in terms of getting a night’s sleep. She was unable to get through the night, woken up by nightmares,” attorney Ellen Bezian said.

Both attorneys have gone to the Nevada Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court on Williams’ behalf. For strategic reasons, they are no longer her attorneys of record, but both stay in touch with her and both are still working to get her released.

“She has certainly served her time. She has more than served her time and is ready to become a productive member of society. She has paid her dues,” Bezian said.

A lot has changed in 14 years. Parents of the teenagers, including Scott Garner, say they have forgiven Williams. But an even bigger change is the public’s attitude about marijuana. The state now issues medical marijuana cards. Legal dispensaries will be opening soon. What hasn’t changed is Nevada’s DUI standard, one the strictest in the nation, declares it illegal to drive with more than 2 nanograms of THC in the blood. Anyone who has a medical marijuana card is going to exceed that level by a wide margin.

“We’ll keep coming back until we change it because, now particularly, there are going to be a lot more people out there, medical marijuana patients, because if you have this drug and you’re working, how do you get to work?” State Senator Tick Segerblom said.

The challenge is -- what standard to set? How to keep stoned drivers off the road? States with liberalized pot laws have seen a jump in weed-related accidents but a few have also had Nevada-style nanogram standards overturned by courts for being too strict. The changes may not help Williams’ appeals but do give her former lawyers some hope.

“The attitude has changed, and when public opinion changes, that changes the whole ballgame. I’m wondering, under these circumstances, whether Jessica would have even been prosecuted for the DUI,” Watkins said.

Senator Segerblom says with so many Nevadans now using marijuana legally, something will have to give.

“The reality is, for us to spend $20,000 a year to keep that woman in prison for something that wasn’t a crime is wrong. We have to find a way to get out of it,” Segerblom said.

Jessica's new attorney of record, the Federal Public Defender's Office, declined the I-Team's request to interview her again. Her former attorneys Ellen Bezian and John Watkins say she is much more stable emotionally than in the early years of her sentence, but that she is still grieving over the deaths of the teenagers.

By the way, Watkins and Bezian are both on the ballot this year as candidates for judge.

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