The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals on Tuesday upheld Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole's decision in denying judicial diversion in the case of Johnthony Walker, the man convicted of causing a 2016 bus crash that killed six children.
Last year, Poole gave Walker a four-year sentence for his reckless aggravated assault charges and explained to a room full of grieving parents that Tennessee law prevented him from handing down any harsher punishment. He said Walker didn't meet the qualifications of a "dangerous offender" that would have allowed him to stack Walker's numerous driving-related convictions together for a stiffer sentence.
Walker appealed that decision, arguing Poole denied judicial diversion based only on one factor in a multi-factor test.
Judicial diversion is, essentially, a program that gives first-time offenders an opportunity to get their charges dismissed if they complete some form of probation, community service or other treatment in lieu of incarceration. The defendant wouldn't be considered a convicted felon, and if they successfully complete probation they may have their record expunged.
But before granting that privilege, judges must consider at least six factors, including criminal record, social history, willingness to correct behaviour, and whether diversion will "serve the ends of justice," including the interest of the public and the accused.
While some defendants may be eligible for judicial diversion, eligibility "does not, however, constitute entitlement," according to the appellate court opinion.
But Walker argues that, despite all other factors weighing in his favor, Poole denied him judicial diversion based on one factor: whether diversion would serve the ends of justice.
That is true, according to the appellate court's opinion, Poole did deny it based on that factor. However, trial courts can deny judicial diversion based on only one factor so long as all other relevant factors are carefully considered, and the denying factor outweighs all others.
The appellate court held that Poole carried out a "very detailed and thorough examination" of the factors, and there was "substantial evidence in the record to support the denial of diversion."
"There is no denying the emotional nature of the deaths and injuries resulting from Defendant's actions and the lasting effects on the children and their families," wrote Criminal Appeals Court Judge Timothy Easter. "Defendant was entrusted with driving a school bus filled with thirty-seven elementary school-aged children. While doing so, he used his phone and exceeded the speed limit on a narrow, winding road before losing control of the bus, which slammed into a utility pole and came to a stop on its side against a tree."
Six children from Woodmore Elementary School died — Zyaira Mateen, 6; D'Myunn Brown, 6; Zyanna Harris, 10; Cor'Dayja Jones, 9; Zoie Nash, 9, and Keonte Wilson, 8 — and dozens more were injured in the crash.
"These facts are tragic for all involved," Easter wrote. "But these facts are nonetheless horrifying. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying judicial diversion."