published Sunday, August 26th, 2012

Former Varnell, Ga., officer in deadly crash to face charges

Varnell Police Officer James Smith was driving this cruiser when he crashed into Leon Thurman's car March 5. Thurman was at least the sixth Georgian killed in recent years in a crash involving a law enforcement vehicle.
Contributed Photo by Michael Thurman
Varnell Police Officer James Smith was driving this cruiser when he crashed into Leon Thurman's car March 5. Thurman was at least the sixth Georgian killed in recent years in a crash involving a law enforcement vehicle. Contributed Photo by Michael Thurman

Prosecutors believe a former Varnell, Ga., police officer was responsible in a high-speed crash that killed a 70-year-old newspaper carrier in March, and they will present evidence to a grand jury that they expect will result in his indictment.

Conasauga District Attorney Bert Poston declined to reveal the evidence but confirmed he will take the evidence to the grand jury this week or in September against former officer James Smith.

Early on March 5, Smith's squad car slammed into the side of Leon Thurman's Dodge Neon while Thurman was on his daily newspaper route for the Dalton Daily Citizen. The impact threw Thurman from his car and caused it to burst into flames.

The crash sparked a Georgia State Patrol investigation that included an extensive collision reconstruction.

The evidence took months to complete before it was given to Poston to review at the end of July.

Thurman's son, Michael, said he is relieved the officer will likely be charged in his father's death.

"I am relieved it's going to go to that point and it won't get pushed aside," he said Friday.

The city of Varnell recently settled out of court in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Thurman's family. The amount of the settlement was not disclosed.

In the suit, the family claims that Smith was driving more than 90 mph in a 45-mph zone.

Smith, who was friends with Leon Thurman, resigned from the police department after the wreck. Smith declined to comment.

Poston hasn't named the charges he will ask for, but he said it will be based on the officer's speed as the primary cause of the collision.

The morning of the crash, Smith wasn't responding to an emergency and didn't have his blue lights on, records have shown. In his front seat was a 19-year-old passenger, who was participating in a citizen ride-along.

Thurman was attempting to cross all four lanes on Cleveland Highway and get to a side road when he was struck.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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