SALT LAKE CITY – A tour bus driver who caused a crash that killed three Japanese tourists last year was spared a lengthy prison term Friday when a judge sentenced him to less than a year in jail for his role in the wreck.
Yasushi Mikuni was facing the prospect of 15 years behind bars, but instead got just under a year in jail and three years of probation. Judge Michael Westfall also ordered the 26-year-old Japanese student to pay restitution to each of the crash victims and court fines.
"I think this was a great outcome," Mikuni's Las Vegas-based defense attorney Garrett Ogata said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I think the judge saw how Yasushi presented himself at each and every court hearing and even said that he handles himself with remorse."
Ogata said Mikuni, who sobbed through Friday's hearing, was so deeply affected by the accident that he went to the crash site with his father and brother to pray for the victims and their families.
The 26-year-old driver originally was charged with 10 felonies but pleaded guilty in May to three felony counts of operating a vehicle negligently, causing serious injury or death.
Utah Highway Patrol investigators said that on the day of the crash, Mikuni, a Japanese citizen living in Las Vegas on a U.S. work and education visa, was driving on little sleep after a long work day the day before.
Tests showed he also had marijuana in his system. Investigators said they didn't believe Mikuni was impaired while driving, but that he was sleep-deprived.
The bus carrying 14 Japanese tourists was headed from Nevada to national parks in Utah and Arizona on Aug. 9, 2010, when it rolled on Interstate 15, about 250 miles south of Salt Lake City. Three died and 11 others were injured, including Mikuni.
Judge Michael Westfall sentenced Mikuni to 15 years in prison Friday but then suspended most of the sentence. Court records show Mikuni will spend 363 days in the Iron County Jail.
He was taken immediately into custody.
Killed in the crash were Hiroki Hayase, 20, of Osaka, Japan; and Junji Hoshino, 38, and his wife, Junko Hoshino, 40, from Shinjuku, Japan.
Some of the Japanese tourists' families wrote scathing letters about Mikuni to the court, asking for imposition of the death penalty or a life sentence, Ogata said.
"And then you have a letter from Hiroki Hayase's father, which says 'I have no ill will toward Yasushi Mikuni and I want to know more about him before I pass judgment,'" Ogata said.
Hayase's parents have filed a personal injury lawsuit in Utah's 3rd District Court against Mikuni and the travel companies tied to the trip. Attorneys for the family said the Hayases and their daughter also were injured in the crash and that Akemi Hayase's injuries left her a paraplegic.
Kei and Mai Maeda also have filed a lawsuit. The married couple was injured in the crash and court records say Kei Maeda was left a quadriplegic.
But the Maedas also bear no ill will toward Mikuni and "want him to heal just as they are hearing," their attorney Scott Brown told the AP after Friday's hearing.
"This was a step forward in healing for everybody, but there's still a lot to be done," Brown said.
Brown said Mikuni appears genuinely repentant and sincere about finding a way to help the crash victims. He said Mikuni told the judge he didn't want a lighter punishment.
"I think (my clients) will feel pleased and grateful and Mr. Mikuni's cooperation with this criminal justice process," Brown said. "I think he bent over backwards to facilitate a fair result."
Last week, Mikuni issued a public apology to the families of the victims. Ogata read it out loud in court Friday.
"I have made a great error, deeply hurt others, and have brought sadness into your lives, by the lack of my thoughts and by the big mistakes I have made," Mikuni wrote in the three-page letter written in Japanese. Ogata provided an English translation of the letter to the AP.
"Even though almost a year has passed since that accident, the visions of the guests' happy smiles on the way to Zion (National Park), then the scene just after the accident and at the hospital, are still flashing across my mind every day," Mikuni wrote.