This story was updated June 21, 2018, at 2:19 p.m.
The Orange Grove Center driver charged with criminally negligent homicide in the 2017 death of a mentally disabled man pleaded guilty Wednesday.
Cliftina Jones, 60, will spend the next 18 months on unsupervised probation for the death of Carrie Parkey Jr. as part of a judicial diversion program aimed at keeping first-time offenders out of jail. If she completes her probation without issue, Jones could have the case expunged from her record.
Her lawyer, Curtis Bowe III, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But Steve Strain, a special prosecutor from the 12th Judicial District who was brought in to independently work the case, said Jones had no prior criminal history and qualified for the program.
Strain said the evidence showed Jones picked up Parkey and some other men from a group home on April 18, 2017, but for whatever reason, she never dropped Parkey off at a Chattanooga church where he worked. Jones then returned to the group home and never unloaded Parkey from the van, Strain said.
Parkey was dead by the time someone found him around 3 p.m. in the back of the group van parked on Lillian Court. The Hamilton County medical examiner's office said Parkey, an Orange Grove client since 1974 with an intellectual disability, died of hyperthermia from exposure to high temperatures.
"First of all, they should have had two caregivers in the van," Strain said, "and you're supposed to physically check the van to make sure everybody is out. We don't really know why he wasn't dropped off, why she didn't check the van."
But, Strain said, prosecutors didn't have evidence Jones intentionally left Parkey inside. A grand jury indicted Jones for criminally negligent homicide, a Class E felony that carries one to six years in prison, as opposed to a more severe murder charge.
Family member Melford Parkey, 59, of Greeneville, Tennessee, said he appreciated the hard work from state officials. "It gives us closure and allows us to move on," he said Wednesdayafternoon.
During 2017, it was unclear if Jones would be charged. That fall, Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said another prosecutor needed to review the evidence, since he was a past president of the Orange Grove Center's board of directors.
After Strain took the case, Jones was formally charged in December 2017. Now she faces a civil lawsuit from Parkey's family asking for damages because of the death.
James "Jimmy" Logan, one of the attorneys representing the Parkey family, said he's not sure yet how Jones' plea will affect that lawsuit.
"In order to evaluate the potential impact of this, it will be necessary for us to see the paperwork submitted to [Hamilton County Criminal Court] Judge Don Poole," Logan said.
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at email@example.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.