The driver of a casino-bound bus that crashed into a ditch north of Sacramento and killed 11 passengers in 2008 will likely be ordered released from prison next month, according to his attorney.
The secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Kathleen Allison, called for the driver, Quinton Watts, to be resentenced in a letter to the Colusa County District Attorney’s Office, Watts’ public defender, and the judge who presided over the case.
A state review, Allison wrote, found that Watts was eligible for a reduction in prison time under a legal provision that allows a judge to correct for disparities and account for good behavior while a person is in prison. “I recommend the inmate’s sentence be recalled and that he be resentenced,” Allison wrote in the letter filed in Colusa County Superior Court.
On Oct. 5, 2008, Watts was driving with 40 Sacramento-area passengers on the outskirts of Colusa. The bus veered out of control with an apparently unconscious Watts at the wheel and smashed into a ditch. It was one of the worst bus crashes in California history and prompted new legislation about charter bus operations in the state.
Watts’ case was the subject of a recent Sacramento Bee investigation outlining a series of missteps that led to an extended prison term for Watts. In 2009, after a short trial in which a single defense witness was called, a judge sent Watts to prison for 26 years and four months. He wasn’t set to be eligible for parole until 2027.
Watts’ original public defender, Albert Smith, was reappointed to represent him for the resentencing hearing set for Feb. 8 in Colusa County — three days after Watts’ 65th birthday.
“The most likely result is that you will be ordered released from prison,” Smith wrote in a brief letter that Watts received in prison last week.
It’s unclear exactly when Watts could be released or what specifically will be discussed at the February hearing, which was continued from another hearing on Jan. 4. Neither Smith nor the Colusa County District Attorney’s Office returned requests for comment.
“There’s no words for how excited I am, how much I’m looking forward to holding my kids again,” Watts said in an interview. “My God. There’s no words for that. That would just be the greatest thing that ever happened to me for a long time. I’ve been waiting for that moment for years.”
Harsh sentence, but evidence withheld from jurors
At trial, prosecutors argued that Watts was short on sleep and not properly taking care of his insulin-dependent diabetes. Jurors found him guilty of 11 counts of felony vehicular manslaughter with “gross negligence.” They also found him guilty of 21 counts of causing great bodily injury, a sentencing enhancement that added nine years to Watts’ prison term.
The Bee’s investigation revealed jurors never learned that Watts had a documented seizure disorder before the crash or that a medical professional had erroneously cleared him to drive.
There were no Black jurors to hear the case against Watts, who himself is Black. Experts said Watts’ attorney barely mounted a defense, and the 26-year sentence would likely be impossible by today’s sentencing standards.
The letter from the California prison secretary cites rules that have changed regarding the use of sentence enhancements in cases involving manslaughter.
Allison’s letter is dated Dec. 15, two days before The Bee published its investigation into the crash and Watts’ prosecution. The Bee spent months interviewing attorneys, prosecutors, legal and medical experts, and others involved about whether Watts was the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
A CDCR spokeswoman declined to discuss the letter or the investigation into Watts’ case and deferred questions to local authorities.
“I agree with this action by the Secretary and specifically believe it is well-founded legally,” Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, told The Bee. “This is why I consider Quinton’s continued incarceration justice gone awry.”
Cooley petitioned then-Gov. Jerry Brown to commute Watts’ sentence in 2018. He never heard back on his request. He filed another commutation request to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office on Dec. 30 with a similar legal argument about sentencing enhancements.
He has also written to Watts in prison and sent him the commutation request paperwork.
‘He did not do this on purpose’
The Bee’s review of thousands of pages of medical records found that not only had Watts been diagnosed with a seizure disorder well before the crash but that he continued to suffer seizures once he was sent to prison in 2009. He now takes medication for them.
Multiple experts on seizures contacted for the story said what happened on the bus that day may very well have been a seizure. At the very least, it should have come up at trial.
John Poyner, the former district attorney in Colusa County who prosecuted Watts, said in a December interview that he thought it was time for Watts to be released.
“He did not do this on purpose,” Poyner said. “This was not an intentional act in the end. He’s paid his price.”
Poyner, who has since retired, said he was not involved in the decision to schedule a hearing or secure Watts’ release.
Watts said the letter he received from Smith, his attorney, first raised more questions than it answered. It was undated and did not describe exactly what the process of appearing in person for a resentencing hearing would entail. Everything seemed to be moving fast after years of going so slow, he said.
He said he was nervous but more hopeful than he’s been in years.
“It’s happening fast,” Watts said. “I’ve never been through this before, so it’s different. I just want to get out there and help the kid’s mother raise the kids the best way I can. That’s all I really think about.”
Sacramento math teacher championed the case
Watts recently earned his custodial certificate while imprisoned at California State Prison Solano in Vacaville. There, he has been cleaning medical facilities, including those used by inmates suspected of having COVID-19. He earns 55 cents an hour.
There have been more than 780 cases of COVID-19 among inmates at the prison. Two people have died.
Edric Cane, the 85-year-old math teacher from France who raised initial concerns about the case and helped prompt The Bee’s investigation, said he was “absolutely delighted” about Watts’ possible prison release. Cane said he’s been in talks with other community members about helping to get Watts a job interview and making sure he lands on his feet.
“Getting out is a priority,” Cane said. “What comes afterwards will be taken care of.”
Rhonda Glaser, another advocate who has worked with Cane on Watts’ behalf over the years said she was overjoyed when Watts told her he might be released.
When a reporter told her details Friday about the court date and the letter from the CDCR secretary, she said: “I know that I will burst into tears. You’re making me almost cry just talking about it. He’s missed out on so many years with his children. I just don’t even know what to say.”
“I already told him he could stay with me if he needs to,” Glaser said.