Attorneys pick jurors, ready for Woodmore bus crash trial

Attorneys pick jurors, ready for Woodmore bus crash trial

February 24th, 2018 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

Johnthony Walker sits in a bench near the front of Judge Don Poole's courtroom as he awaits his turn to be called up for a pretrial hearing Monday, Feb. 5, 2018 at the Hamilton County Criminal Courthouse in Chattanooga, Tenn. Walker was the bus driver in the Nov. 21, 2016 fatal bus crash that killed six Woodmore Elementary Students.

Photo by Erin O. Smith

Woodmore Elementary school bus crash

Chattanooga attorneys picked jurors Friday in Clarksville, Tenn., for the trial of a 25-year-old school bus driver charged with killing six children in a 2016 Talley Road crash.

Johnthony Walker will stand trial Tuesday in Hamilton County Criminal Court in connection with the Nov. 21, 2016, wreck that involved 37 Woodmore Elementary School students on his bus. He faces 34 charges, including one count of use of a portable electronic device by a school driver, six counts of vehicular homicide, seven counts of assault, 18 counts of reckless aggravated assault, one count of reckless endangerment and one count of reckless driving.

Attorneys picked out-of-town jurors in Clarksville because they agreed Chattanoogans might be biased because of heavy local media attention on the case. They started with roughly 250 potential jurors before court officials whittled that number down to 97. From there, jurors answered 46 questions related to the case, such as whether they had ever driven a bus.

Attorneys finished picking a jury around 5 p.m. Central time. They will be transported to Hamilton County before the trial and remain sequestered throughout the week.

Prosecutors said Walker was speeding on the narrow road in Brainerd when he lost control of bus 366 and ultimately crashed into a walnut tree. Though he had no drugs or alcohol in his system, prosecutors said cellular data shows Walker received a phone call at the time of the crash.

His defense attorney, Amanda Dunn, has painted the crash as more of an accident and said in August 2017 a second vehicle on Talley Road may have caused Walker to swerve that day. Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole agreed to reduce Walker's $107,500 bond to $50,000 after hearing that testimony and from three witnesses who vouched for the 25-year-old's character.

Dunn also said the phone data comes from a rough draft of a National Transportation Safety Board report, and she's argued much of that evidence can't come in at trial. Any data before Nov. 21, 2016, is irrelevant to what happened that day, she said.

The NTSB is a federal agency that investigates serious motor vehicle accidents, including this one, and draws conclusions about what happened. It is still in the process of publishing its final report.

Another issue is the number of complaints Woodmore parents and administrators had about Walker's driving and interactions with students.

Prosecutors called three witnesses earlier this month who said Walker cursed out his students, inappropriately hit the brakes and sped out of the school parking lot on a handful of occasions. Those incidents could establish a pattern of behavior by Walker that explains the crash.

Dunn, however, said Walker was struggling to keep misbehaving students under control and questioned how that information was relevant to the crash itself. The judge seemed to agree in a recent order.

Poole said he's not going to let jurors hear about the alleged cursing, agreeing with Dunn that perhaps students were misbehaving. But if prosecutors want to introduce evidence of prior bad driving, they can request an out-of-jury hearing and try to make their case, Poole said.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.


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