published Saturday, July 20th, 2013

No prison time for former Varnell, Ga., police officer James Smith

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    Contributed Photo by Michael Thurman Varnell Police Officer James Smith was driving this cruiser when he crashed into Leon Thurman's car in this file photo.
    Photo by Contributed Photo by Michael Thurman

Former Varnell, Ga., police officer James Smith won't serve prison time for slamming his off-duty police cruiser at high speed into Leon Thurman's car early in the morning on March 5, 2012, killing the 70-year-old Cohutta man.

"[Thurman's] family did not want him to go to prison," said Conasauga Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston, who prosecuted the case.

Instead, Smith will serve 10 years' probation, do 300 hours of community service, pay a $2,500 fine and court fees -- and won't ever work in law enforcement again. That's under a ruling Thursday by Whitfield County Superior Court Judge Cindy Morris after Smith pleaded guilty to first-degree vehicular homicide and reckless driving.

"It was a negotiated plea between the two sides based on the family's request that it be resolved that way," Poston said.

Smith's Dalton, Ga.-based attorney Ralph Hinman, who specializes in defending those charged with serious traffic offenses, said Friday, "James and I respectfully decline to comment."

Smith wasn't on a call, and his blue lights weren't on at 1:30 a.m. at the intersection of Cleveland Highway and Orchard Way just north of Dalton when he slammed his police cruiser into the Dodge Neon that Thurman was using to deliver newspapers.

Smith was heading back toward Varnell, Poston said, after shopping at a Walmart in Dalton for a notebook.

"The only thing we can speculate is he was just in too big of a hurry to get back to the Varnell area to resume his patrol," Poston said.

Cruiser went 104 mph

Smith was traveling at 104 mph seconds before the crash and slammed into Thurman's car at about 90 mph, Poston said, according to an analysis by the Georgia State Patrol Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team.

The team retrieved information stored in a "black box" built into the Ford patrol car's air bag system. It recorded roughly 30 seconds' worth of information before the crash, Poston said, including the car's speed every fifth of a second and the position of its gas and brake pedals.

Smith took his foot off the accelerator before the collision -- but he didn't hit the brakes, Poston said.

"He did not leave any skid marks" prior to impact, Poston said, though Smith's patrol car did skid afterward.

Thurman made friends with police he met at night while delivering papers for 15 years, including Smith, who sent flowers to Thurman's funeral and had given Thurman a handmade birdhouse as a gift months before the fatal accident.

"Everything that I've heard is [Smith] is very remorseful for what happened," Poston said.

Thurman's family requested that half of Smith's 300 hours of community service be dedicated to sharing his experience with other law enforcement personnel, Poston said, to discourage them from driving recklessly.

Thurman's family sought $750,000 and settled for an undisclosed amount last year in a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Varnell.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@times freepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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