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Photo by Erin O. Smith / Johnthony Walker, 25, testifies during his criminal trial Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018 in Judge Don Poole's courtroom at the Hamilton County Courthouse in Chattanooga, Tenn. Walker was convicted in February in connection with the Nov. 21, 2016, crash that killed six Woodmore Elementary School students, and his attorney is now asking a judge to reconsider his four-year sentence.

Updated at 10:01 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018, to correct the spelling of Keonte Wilson.

Woodmore Elementary school bus crash

Johnthony Walker won't get a shorter sentence for his convictions in the Woodmore bus crash that killed six elementary school children and injured dozens more.

Criminal Court Judge Don Poole on Monday denied a motion by Walker's attorney, Amanda Dunn, for a sentence reduction based on a claim that the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office suppressed evidence in Walker's favor.

Dunn said she had no opportunity to question witness Jasmine Mateen's credibility at the sentencing hearing because DA Neal Pinkston never told the defense he had dismissed criminal charges against her. They were later expunged.

In response, Pinkston said he dismissed the charges — which he has unquestioned authority to do — because there was no evidence to support them, and that the information wouldn't have changed Walker's four-year sentence. Walker has appealed his case to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals.

The Nov. 21, 2016, crash on Talley Road took the life of Mateen's 6-year-old daughter, Zyaira. Two other daughters, Zasmyn and Zacauree'A, were injured but survived. Woodmore families and the city as a whole also mourned the deaths of D'Myunn Brown, 6; Zyanna Harris, 10; Cor'Dayja Jones, 9; Zoie Nash, 9, and Keonte Wilson, 8.

Mateen wasn't a witness at Walker's trial. He was found guilty March 1 on 27 counts, including multiple charges of reckless aggravated assault.

But she testified at an earlier hearing that she had complained numerous times about Walker speeding in the school bus. And at Walker's sentencing hearing, Poole cited Mateen's testimony about repeated speeding as an enhancing element.

"Indeed, Mr. Walker received the maximum punishment that he could receive absent the imposition of consecutive sentences, largely based on Ms. Mateen's allegations," Dunn wrote in her motion for sentence reduction.

Only after the sentencing, Dunn wrote, did she learn Mateen was arrested in March on two counts of aggravated domestic assault, atop a February harassment warrant for allegedly threatening staff at Dalewood Middle School.

Under a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors must turn over to the defense evidence that can help an accused person defend himself.

Had she known about the warrant and arrest, Dunn said, she could have cross-examined Mateen's credibility, as well as the grieving mother's "perception of events and whether she responds to them appropriately."

Since Poole had deemed Mateen's testimony about the speeding complaints credible, the new information could have made a difference in his sentencing decision, she said.

Dunn also cited "perceived favoritism" in the dismissal of charges. The alleged "violent conduct arguably should have been prosecuted in any other circumstances were she not the mother of victims" in the bus accident, Dunn wrote.

Instead, Pinkston went to a magistrate, a General Sessions judge and ultimately to Criminal Court in February to get Mateen's arrest warrant dismissed, court documents show. And he appeared in General Sessions Court on April 23 to dismiss the two aggravated assault counts, Dunn wrote. That was one day before Mateen testified at Walker's sentencing hearing.

Pinkston argued that Mateen's charges were immaterial because she didn't testify at the trial and she couldn't have been cross-examined about active charges. Besides, that information wouldn't have helped Walker, Pinkston wrote in his response to Dunn's motion. And Dunn could have asked Mateen about a theft conviction that's still on her record, he added.

He also questioned how Times Free Press reporter Zack Peterson supposedly knew about Dunn's May resentencing motion before his office did.

Pinkston said he hadn't yet received a copy of the motion when Peterson called his office to ask for comment.

"It's as if the motion was leaked to the media putting the District Attorney General's Office in a bad light without having the opportunity to review the motion," Pinkston wrote in his response.

Dunn said in court Monday she had told Peterson she would be filing a motion and that he picked it up from the clerk's office under the state's open records law.

Alison Gerber, editor and director of content for the Times Free Press, said the newspaper "does not discuss reporting techniques or sources, but our reporter acted ethically and correctly and his stories were accurate."

She added, "The newspaper will continue to report vigorously on this situation."

Pinkston noted that Dunn's motion included copies of the expunged information. Revealing that information is a Class A misdemeanor, he said, and added that he has called for an investigation.

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Susan Niland confirmed Monday the agency has been asked to look into "the alleged release of expunged documents."

Dunn said she hasn't done anything wrong, and obtained the documents before they were expunged.

"And frankly, your honor, I received material from other members of the defense bar, officers of the court, and other individuals, all of whom knew about these events before I did," she told Poole.

In his ruling, Poole found points on both sides.

"I think I would agree with Ms. Dunn that expunging exculpatory evidence applies in sentencing, but I don't think it was material," Poole said.

At the same time, he added, "I think it's very clear that the DA in this county has the power to dismiss any case they see fit to dismiss."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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