Woodmore families question out-of-town jury, number of charges, Durham contract

Jurors from outside Chattanooga to decide Johnthony Walker's fate in deadly school bus crash trial

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 12/15/16. Johnthony Walker, the driver involved in the November 21, 2016 school bus crash that sent 31 of the 37 students on board to the hospital resulting in six fatalities, appears before Judge Lila Statom in Hamilton County General Sessions Court on December 15, 2016 for charges of vehicular homicide, reckless endangerment and reckless driving. Walker’s case was bound over to the grand jury after an hour and a half of testimony from two Chattanooga Police Department officers.

Prosecutors agreed Monday to bring out-of-town jurors to Chattanooga to hear the case of Johnthony Walker, the 24-year-old bus driver charged with six counts of vehicular homicide in the Woodmore crash.

The only question now is, where will they come from?

"I would prefer a metropolitan area," defense attorney Amanda Dunn said, adding there was significant coverage in Davidson County, Tenn., of the Nov. 21, 2016, wreck here. "We need a place with a diverse population similar to Hamilton County."

She and Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston will discuss those details before Walker's next appearance July 20.

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If you have a loved one injured in the Nov. 21 crash and want to report medical information to the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office, call 423-209-7400.

Dunn asked for out-of-town jurors in March after a grand jury indicted Walker on six counts of vehicular homicide, four counts of reckless aggravated assault and one count each of reckless driving, reckless endangerment and use of a portable electronic device by a school bus driver. She also requested any additional evidence prosecutors plan to introduce at trial, which Pinkston agreed to provide Monday.

Police say Walker was speeding on Talley Road with 37 children onboard when he over-corrected and swerved into a telephone pole and a tree. Six children died as a result and several more were injured.

Pinkston could not comment Monday on the case. But last week, he met with a handful of grieving family members at Woodmore Elementary School to discuss how out-of-town juries work, to collect accurate medical information on children who survived the crash, and to answer any general questions.

A major question among family members: Why is there not a count on the indictment for all 37 children?

An indictment is a court document that formally outlines the criminal accusations a prosecutor must prove. Between the vehicular homicide and reckless aggravated assault charges, Walker was charged for only 10 of the children, even though 37 were onboard, parents say.

"You have to have certain injuries to be charged," Pinkston explained at the meeting. "So that's what we're trying to figure out from everybody."

Pinkston could bring more charges against Walker if his office believes the medical information supports them. Some parents who filed civil lawsuits said their children needed economic assistance because they were so disfigured from the wreck. Many children are also in therapy because of the unknown psychological impact of seeing their friends and classmates being killed, family members added. Pinkston's staff has been working to contact family members for each of the 37 children, but cannot comment on the possibility of more charges.

"It would be an original presentment," defense attorney Bill Speek said of the possible charges, "and it would just be another indictment and include whichever kids they added to it."

The ultimate frustration among Woodmore family members - and one that is out of Pinkston's control - is the Hamilton County Department of Education's unanimous vote to re-sign Durham School Services to a two-year contract in April.

Durham, an Illinois-based corporation that provides the majority of buses here, employed Walker at the time of the Nov. 21 wreck and is paying for his legal representation. CEO David Duke has said the company has made numerous safety improvements since Nov. 21, including having more monitors on buses and an electronic complaint system. And school board members said Durham, the only company that made a bid for the contract, was the best option nationwide, records show.

That rationalization, however, does not sit easily with the families attending Woodmore, a school that serves predominantly poor and minority students. The outrage over re-signing Durham would have been different if the wreck happened to suburban and rural families, they say. About 49 independent contractors, who school board member Steve Highlander said in December have a tested record of safety and are reliable, cover those routes. Another 20 independent contractors will be given routes beginning in the 2017-18 school year.

"Our kids' lives - they matter to us," one victim's mother said at last week's Woodmore meeting. "They may not matter to anyone else."

A few mothers want to send a message to any school board members who thought it would be impossible to replace Durham with another company before the fall school year: Don't make time an excuse anymore. Start looking into other companies now.

Jasmine Mateen, who had three children on bus 366, has received about 300 signatures so far on a petition she plans to present to the board. She reported Walker's speeding to Woodmore officials and the school board but nothing happened - and Zyaira Mateen paid the price with her life, she said.

"We do not trust that Durham School Services will provide safe transportation for our students," her petition reads. Her next step is to organize a march to bring further attention.

"What about our voices? What about the voices of the kids?" Mateen asked. "They say our kids matter, but obviously they don't. The school board isn't riding on these buses - you put them on these buses. You re-sign with the same company that killed their sisters, their brothers, their cousins."

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zack peterson918.