Judge hears accounts of Woodmore bus driver cursing at students, speeding

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.

Johnthony Walker, a 25-year-old bus driver charged with killing six children, cursed out his student passengers and sped off in front of administrators on a handful of occasions, three witnesses said Monday in Hamilton County Criminal Court.

Most of that testimony is already in the public domain, but prosecutors want jurors from Clarksville, Tenn., to hear some of it during Walker's vehicular homicide trial scheduled for Feb. 27.

They say it shows a pattern of dangerous behavior that resulted in the Nov. 21, 2016, crash on Talley Road that killed six of the 37 Woodmore Elementary School children onboard.

But to get the testimony into evidence, prosecutors must convince Criminal Court Judge Don Poole that it's helpful to their case but not overly harmful to Walker's constitutional rights. The judge has taken it into advisement and will release an order soon.

But standing in their way is Walker's defense attorney, who said Monday that any mention of Walker's prior misconduct is an emotional play on jurors that distracts from the real issue.

"The true issue is whether he operated the bus in a dangerous fashion," Amanda Dunn said. "It is not whether students liked him, or if he got along with them."

Also on the table is Walker's cellular data, which shows him receiving a phone call at 3:17 p.m., around the time of the crash, prosecutors say.

But Dunn doesn't want jurors to see anything from Walker's phone before the day of the crash.

When Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston dropped that information at Walker's last hearing in December, Judge Poole said none of those records were coming into evidence without further discussion.

Dunn was prepared to debate the issue Monday, but Pinkston said he'd already provided the records his team planned to use at trial, tabling the discussion for another date.

For most of Monday, Dunn cross-examined the state's three witnesses - two former Woodmore officials and one mother whose 6-year-old child died in the crash.

Carlis Shackelford, a former behavior specialist at Woodmore, said he noticed two incidents with Walker in November.

Shackelford said he stopped Walker's bus from leaving on Nov. 2, 2016, because Walker and some of the students were arguing with each other and using curse words. A week later, Shackelford said Walker did something of a "doughnut" in the school yard before leaving.

As she did with all of witnesses, Dunn asked if Shackelford had observed Walker operating on his full route. He had not. She also pointed out Walker complained on some occasions about children not sitting on the bus or following the rules.

Brenda Cothran, the former principal at Woodmore, said she once rode the bus with Walker because she'd received complaints about his interactions with students and his driving. But Cothran didn't have any paperwork documenting that trip, so Dunn said she couldn't testify about whether she had any issues with the trip.

Finally, Jasmine Mateen entered the courtroom wearing a homemade shirt with laminated pictures of her 6-year-old daughter, Zyaira Mateen, who died in the crash.

Jasmine Mateen said she often noticed Walker speeding or making sudden stops when she dropped her children off and picked them up every day at their bus stop. One day, she spoke to Walker, because he'd cursed out her children, she said.

Because of the behavior, Mateen said she left messages at the Hamilton County Department of Education, tried to reach board members and spoke with Woodmore's assistant principal at the time.

"The school, the board of education, transportation, you name it," she said.

Poole hasn't ruled on whether jurors can hear that testimony.

After listening Monday, he said he had "a very difficult time determining how [interactions with the students] could be relevant," and Pinkston agreed he probably wouldn't introduce them unless Walker's defense opened the door to the issue.

Next up is a check-up date on Feb. 19. After that, attorneys will travel to Clarksville, Tenn., to pick a jury by Feb. 26.

Walker remains out of custody on a reduced $50,000 bond.

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