CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — A former school bus driver who was involved in a crash that killed six students in November 2016 has been found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and over two dozen lesser charges.
As previously reported, Johnthony Walker was allegedly speeding and lost control of his bus, which left the road and hit a utility pole, overturned, and crashed into a tree, causing the roof of the bus to collapse inward. In addition to the fatalities, 31 children were injured in the crash, and Walker sustained minor injuries. He was indicted on six counts of vehicular homicide, and was also charged with four counts of reckless aggravated assault, one count of reckless endangerment, one count of reckless driving, and one count of use of a portable electronic device by a school bus driver.
On Thursday, jurors convicted Walker of criminally negligent homicide, a lesser felony than the initial charge of six counts of vehicular homicide, as well as a combination of lesser charges, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
The lesser charges include 11 of the initial 17 counts of reckless aggravated assault (a Class D felony) and assault on the other six counts (a less severe misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in custody); reckless driving; reckless endangerment; and use of a portable device by a school bus driver.
Jurors also found Walker not guilty on six of his seven assault charges due to a lack of the necessary medical documentation to prove serious bodily injury.
Walker is scheduled for sentencing on April 24, according to the newspaper.
Prosecutors had alleged that Walker was on the phone at the time of the crash, and that he was traveling 50 miles per hour in a 30 mile per hour zone, Chattanooga Times Free Press reports. On Tuesday, when the trial began, Crystle Carrion, assistant district attorney for Hamilton County, said that the crash “could have been avoided if Johnthony Walker had slowed down below the speed limit and stayed off his phone,” according to ABC News.
To build their case, prosecutors also called eyewitnesses who said they saw Walker speeding, police officers who reconstructed the scene, and medical examiners.
Walker’s defense attorney said that police officers ignored a crucial witness who saw a second vehicle that caused Walker to swerve off the road, and she added that police used outdated reconstruction methods to produce a higher estimated speed. Walker testified that he was traveling 35 miles per hour at the time of the crash.
A Chattanooga police officer who reconstructed the scene testified on Tuesday that no evidence pointed to a second vehicle being in Walker’s lane of travel, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Additionally, a state witness said that she and Walker were on the phone for seconds — not 3 minutes and 50 seconds, as prosecutors said, and Walker’s attorney said they weren’t talking at the time of the crash, according to Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Jurors deliberated for about 10 hours, the newspaper reports. They began deliberations on Wednesday night, and, after two hours of deliberations on Thursday morning, they asked whether they had to return the same verdict for all 17 of Walker's reckless aggravated assault charges. The judge responded that each count should be decided individually.
The fatal crash spurred legislation, including a Tennessee law that passed in May that raised the minimum age for school bus drivers to 25 (Walker was 24 at the time of the crash). The new law, which went into effect on Jan. 1, also includes measures to increase state oversight of pupil transportation. The crash also sparked calls for a requirement for seat belts on school buses, including a proposed bill from state Rep. JoAnne Favors that has since been removed from consideration that would have required all Tennessee school buses to be equipped with a “restraint system” by July 1, 2023.