Prosecutors plan to bring more charges against Woodmore bus driver

Prosecutors plan to bring more charges against Woodmore bus driver

July 21st, 2017 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

Two-year old Layla Martin looks at the sign that she is to carry. A march was held downtownon May 25, 2017 to remember the victims of the Woodmore Bus Crash and draw attention to Durham Transportation being retained as the contractor for the county's buses.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

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Attorney says Woodmore bus driver should get alternative sentence

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POLL: Do you think Johnthony Walker should be granted alternative sentencing?

Chattanooga prosecutors announced Thursday they plan to seek more criminal charges against Johnthony Walker, the 24-year-old driver who now faces six counts of vehicular homicide from the 2016 Woodmore school bus crash that killed six children.

Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said in court he will return to the grand jury in the next two weeks with more evidence. It's unclear how many new charges he's seeking, but Pinkston told victims' families during a meeting in May that he needed more medical information on the children who were injured in order to levy additional counts against Walker.

If grand jurors did return fresh indictments against Walker, the charges probably would "be substantially similar to what he already faces," said his defense attorney, Amanda Dunn.

"It's not a surprise to me," Dunn said. "We know how many children were on the bus. I know how many children were significantly injured. I think the DA's office is trying to make sure that all voices are heard."

Pinkston's office declined to comment afterward. But Dunn also had an announcement Thursday.

Dunn said her client is eligible for diversion, an alternative sentencing program that allows first-time offenders to get their cases dismissed and then erased if they complete some form of probation or community service.

"All I can say is I believe he's eligible," she said. "He's never been in trouble his entire life. He's a high school graduate. He was working two jobs. He had been nothing but an outstanding member of society."

Tennessee judges granted diversion in about 6,000 cases statewide between 2015 and 2016, according to statistics from the Administrative Office of the Courts. A well-known example in Chattanooga is Jesse Nayadley, one of the three Ooltewah High School officials charged with failure to report child sex abuse, whose case was dismissed in May 2016 after he completed 10 hours of community service and a mandatory reporting class within a 90-day period.

"I don't think the state agrees with diversion," Dunn said during a check-up hearing Thursday in Hamilton County Criminal Court.

Pinkston said he would respond to Dunn's request when she files it in the next week. Attorneys will further discuss diversion Aug. 10 before Criminal Court judge Don Poole.

Walker, who faces six counts of vehicular homicide, four counts of reckless aggravated assault, and one count each of reckless endangerment, reckless driving and use of a portable electronic device by a bus driver, stood silently Thursday in his jail uniform. He has been in custody at the Hamilton County Jail since Nov. 21, when police say he swerved into a telephone pole and a tree while speeding down Talley Road with 37 Woodmore Elementary children onboard.

Six children died as a result of the crash, and several more were injured.

The former Amazon employee is also named in a dozen or so civil lawsuits with Durham School Services, an Illinois-based corporation that provides the majority of the county's school buses and drivers.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled July 31 at 10 a.m. before Circuit Court Judge J.B. Bennett.

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


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