published Friday, March 8th, 2013

Vehicular homicide trial of ex-officer delayed

A former Varnell, Ga., police officer is willing to plead guilty to a misdemeanor — not a felony — in the death of a 70-year-old newspaper carrier in a crash last year, the victim's son said Thursday.

Former officer James L. Smith faces first-degree vehicular homicide and reckless driving charges in the March 5, 2012, crash. According to investigators, Smith was speeding when he slammed his police cruiser into Leon Thurman's Dodge Neon at the intersection of Cleveland Highway and Orchard Drive in Dalton, Ga.

Smith's trial had been set to begin next Monday in Whitfield County Superior Court.

But at a hearing Thursday morning, the trial was postponed until May 6 at the earliest.

Conasauga District Attorney Bert Poston and Smith's Dalton-based attorney, Ralph Hinman, who specializes in defending those charged with serious traffic offenses, agreed before Thursday's hearing to delay the trial, according to an official in the DA's office.

Neither Poston nor Hinman could be reached for comment.

Leon Thurman's son, Michael Thurman, said he's been told Smith will plead guilty only to a misdemeanor.

"I definitely wouldn't be happy" if that happened, Thurman said.

Contacted by phone Thursday, Smith declined to comment.

When the wreck occurred about 1:30 a.m., prosecutors say, Smith wasn't on a call, he hadn't activated his police cruiser's blue lights and he was traveling substantially above the posted speed limit of 45 mph.

"His negligence led to the whole thing happening, so it's hard for me," Thurman said.

Thurman said he hasn't decided if he'd like to see Smith serve time for the wreck that killed Thurman's father.

"I know [Smith's] got a family," Thurman said. "I don't know if I've made up my mind."

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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