The bus driver charged with killing six children in the Woodmore Elementary School crash took a cellphone call around the time of the crash, a Hamilton County prosecutor said Tuesday.
Johnthony Walker received a call at 3:17 p.m. on Nov. 21, 2016, which lasted nearly four minutes, District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said in court. The first 911 call that a bus crashed on Talley Road with 37 students onboard came in at 3:20 p.m., Pinkston said.
Prosecutors have long said Walker was speeding down Talley Road when he overcorrected and crashed into a telephone pole and tree. Walker faces 34 charges in connection with the wreck, including six counts of vehicular homicide, 18 counts of reckless aggravated assault and one count of use of a portable electronic device by a school bus driver.
Walker had his phone out at some point on the bus, according to previous testimony in December 2016. But until Tuesday, prosecutors never alleged when or how Walker, 25, was using the device.
Melydia Clewell, Pinkston's spokeswoman, said the latest information comes from the National Transportation Safety Board's review of Walker's phone records. The NTSB is a federal agency that investigates serious crashes, including Woodmore, and commissions a report about what happened.
Pinkston received a draft of the NTSB's final report and shared the findings last week with some crash victims, Clewell said.
"We told the parents of the deceased children what the DA put on the record in court today," Clewell said, "that the NTSB review of his phone records show Walker was on the phone at the time of the crash."
The report isn't final and can change as NTSB officers make suggestions internally. A public hearing, during which the NTSB board will vote to release the final report, is tentatively scheduled between April and June, spokesman Christopher O'Neil told the Times Free Press last week.
Walker's defense attorney, Amanda Dunn, declined to comment after Tuesday's hearing. Last week, she asked to suppress a few pieces of potential evidence, including the 1,300 pages of cellular data that authorities downloaded from Walker's phone.
"I don't see what value it adds bringing in phone calls prior to Nov. 21, 2016," Dunn said Tuesday in court.
Pinkston said he had no interest in showing "a majority" of the downloaded text messages, photographs, music, emails and call logs. But the prosecutor did want to introduce the 3:17 p.m. phone call and other conversations Walker had with that person.
"What if defendant claims that phone call was random?" Pinkston asked. "I think it would be important to show he's had prior conversations with that person who called at this particular time. At other times in this particular hour, he's on the phone, as well."
Judge Don Poole said no phone records are coming into evidence until attorneys have a hearing on the issue. Poole scheduled it for Feb. 5 and announced the location of the agreed-upon out-of-town jury: Clarksville, Tenn. Walker is scheduled to stand trial in Hamilton County Criminal Court Feb. 27.
During pretrial hearings like the one Tuesday, attorneys often debate what evidence jurors should and shouldn't see.
Dunn requested no autopsy photos come into evidence, and Pinkston agreed, saying a medical examiner could testify about the victims' injuries. The attorneys also agreed Poole should squash a public records request from a Nashville TV station for Walker's jailhouse phone calls. Because Clarksville and Nashville aren't too far apart, word could travel and damage Walker's constitutional right to a fair trial, Poole said.
Poole reduced Walker's bond in September after Dunn introduced evidence that a second vehicle may have caused her client to swerve on Talley Road. Walker has been on GPS supervision since October and was escorted out of the courthouse Tuesday by county deputies.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zack peterson918.
This story was updated Dec. 19, 2017, at 11:34 p.m. with more information.