Former Varnell officer pleads not guilty

Former Varnell officer pleads not guilty

February 1st, 2013 by Tim Omarzu in Local Regional News

Former Varnell officer, James Smith

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

DALTON, Ga. - Former Varnell, Ga., police officer James L. Smith pleaded not guilty Thursday morning to first-degree vehicular homicide and reckless driving in the death of Leon Thurman early on March 7 of last year.

Smith was off duty at 1:30 a.m. at the intersection of Cleveland Highway and Orchard Drive when he slammed his police cruiser at high speed into the Dodge Neon that Thurman was using to deliver newspapers.

Unless a plea bargain is reached, trial is set to begin at 9 a.m. March 11 in Whitfield County Superior Court.

Smith's attorney Ralph Hinman declined to comment on the case. Based in Dalton, Hinman specializes in defending those charged with driving under the influence and other serious traffic offenses.

Conasauga District Attorney Bert Poston plans to personally prosecute Smith.

"Most of the homicides, whether they're murder cases or vehicular homicide, I handle directly," said Poston, who was sworn in about a year ago after working for 20 years in the DA's office.

Poston declined to make any specific comments about the Smith case.

Thurman's family sought $750,000 and settled for an undisclosed amount in a wrongful death lawsuit that argued Smith was traveling at more than 90 mph -- twice the legal speed limit -- when he hit Thurman.

Smith wasn't on a call, and his blue lights weren't on, records show. He resigned his post after the wreck.

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.

Asked if the settlement affected Varnell's insurance premiums, City Administrator Jason Hall said the city hadn't seen an increase.

"We haven't seen one yet," he said.

The city of about 1,700 residents spends $28,000 annually for insurance through the Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency, which is administered by the Georgia Municipal Association, Hall said.