Woodmore: Johnthony Walker's attorney wants out-of-town jury

Woodmore: Johnthony Walker's attorney wants out-of-town jury

March 25th, 2017 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

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.

Photo by Dan Henry /Times Free Press.

An attorney says out-of-town jurors need to hear the case of a 24-year-old bus driver charged with killing six Woodmore Elementary School children because the tragedy has deeply permeated the local community.

"Chattanooga is a community in mourning," defense attorney Amanda Dunn wrote in a motion Friday. "There are billboards throughout the county urging residents to 'Pray for Woodmore.' Social media, church services and community gatherings are a constant reminder of the lives lost and the ongoing grief of the families."

Dunn said Johnthony Walker understands this grief and does not want to attack anyone suffering from the Nov. 21 crash, which killed six children and wounded several more. "Rather, he is asking this court to acknowledge that there may never come a time when this community [can] look past its grief and fairly judge the facts in this case."

Dunn filed both motions Friday in Hamilton County Criminal Court, where she said her client was "not guilty" during his arraignment before Judge Don Poole. His next scheduled appearance is April 19.

District Attorney General Neal Pinkston, who is prosecuting the case, declined to comment Friday but likely will file a response. Prosecutors usually don't comment in the middle of a case.

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Walker faces six counts of vehicular homicide, four counts of reckless aggravated assault, one count each of reckless driving, reckless endangerment and use of a portable electronic device by a school bus driver, after a grand jury indicted him earlier this month.

Police say he was speeding down Talley Road in Brainerd with 37 Woodmore Elementary children onboard when he lost control of the bus, swerved off the narrow two-lane roadway, crossed a driveway and struck a mail box, then overcorrected before striking a telephone pole and tree.

In a preliminary report, the National Transportation Safety Board said Walker was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs but deviated from his normal route at the time of the accident.

In the meantime, he and his employer, Durham School Services, which provides most of the county's school buses and drivers, faces about a dozen civil lawsuits between state and federal courts.

Dunn said a fair criminal trial is unlikely because of the amount of information available to a potential juror in Hamilton County.

Within two days of the accident, local media reported information about Walker's driving record, his history of accidents, statements by another woman involved in a minor accident with him in September 2016, and "inflammatory accusations" that he made moments before the crash, Dunn said. By Thanksgiving, lawyers for the Hamilton County School Board of Education released documents that included 30 pages of handwritten complaints about Walker's driving, she added.

"All [of this] is now available to each potential juror in Hamilton County for review, even if such information would not be admissible at trial," she said.

Attorneys often argue for months before a trial whether jurors need to hear specific pieces of evidence.

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


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