Johnthony Walker, the bus driver in the tragic school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is guilty of vehicular homicide a jury found. The jury also found Walker guilty of various assault and endangerment charges in a trial that saw the prosecutor accuse Walker of speeding and using his cellphone while driving the bus. The Nov. 21, 2016, Tennessee bus crash killed six students, which once again raised concerns about the lack of adequate safety measures regulating school buses and the recent causes of fatal school bus crashes across the country.
Tennessee School Bus Driver Was Distracted Driving on Cell Phone According to Prosecution
Officials charged Walker, 25, with 34 counts, including six counts of vehicular homicide, 17 counts of reckless aggravated assault, and seven counts of assault. Walker also faced charges of reckless endangerment, reckless driving and use of a cell phone while driving. His attorney argued that police ignored evidence that a second vehicle traveling towards the bus drifted into his lane, causing Walker to drive off the road.
“I was assuming the other vehicle would gradually get back over in his lane,” Walker testified. “I’m thinking, ‘There’s either going to be a collision or I can veer out of the way’.” Walker said the accident happened as he swerved to avoid that second car.
The attorney further argued that although Walker received a call from a friend, he used Bluetooth so he could answer the call without taking his hands off the steering wheel. Finally, a witness said she was on the phone with Walker for only a few seconds, not a few minutes.
Prosecutors, however, painted a very different picture of events as the tragedy unfolded, arguing that there was no evidence that a second vehicle drifted into Walker’s lane. They also argued that Walker was driving 50-miles-per-hour in a 30-mile-per-hour zone and brought eyewitnesses to testify to having seen Walker speeding.
“He swerved because he went too fast approaching the curve, overcorrected, then popped over a driveway, creates a bunch of tire marks, strikes a utility pole and wrecks into a tree,” said Hamilton County District Attorney General Neal Pinkston in his closing arguments.
Furthermore, the prosecutor alleged Walker managed to make six outgoing calls within five minutes of the crash, but did not call 911.
Jury Finds Bus Driver in Fatal Woodmore Elementary School Bus Crash Guilty of Lesser Charges
Although Walker was charged with vehicular homicide for his distracted driving caused accident, the jury found him guilty of six counts of criminally negligent homicide, which carries a shorter sentence. The jury members also found Walker guilty of 11 of the 17 counts of reckless aggravated assault and seven counts of assault. The jury reportedly said it could not find Walker guilty on all the assault counts because of a lack of medical documentation that would have proven the children suffered serious bodily injury.
It took about 10 hours of deliberation for the jury to reach the verdicts. Following the trial, jurors were released to go home to Clarksville. Jurors were chosen from Clarksville because attorneys agreed during selection that the jury pool in Chattanooga was likely biased due to media coverage of the crash.
Judge Don Poole set sentencing for April 24. Walker faces a sentence of one to two years in prison per criminally negligent homicide count.
Six Children Died in 2016 Chattanooga Bus Crash
On Nov. 16, 2016, six children died and more were injured when a bus carrying students home from Woodmore Elementary School crashed and flipped over. Five died at the scene while a sixth died later in hospital from his injuries. The six who died were all between the ages of six and 10. Another two dozen children suffered injuries in the school bus accident.
Although the verdict against Walker may bring some relief to the victims’ families, at least one mother has said it isn’t enough. Diamound Brown, whose D’Myunn, was one of the victims, said she also holds Durham School Services responsible for allowing Johnthony Walker to remain behind the wheel of the bus, despite concerns about his driving.
“It all could have been avoided if Johnthony Walker had slowed down below the speed limit and stayed off his phone,” said Hamilton County Assistant District Attorney Crystle Carrion during opening statements.
Tennessee Bus Crash Raises Concerns about School Bus Safety in the Age of Distracted Driving with Cell Phones
Bus crash safety has been the focal point for some advocates, who say more should be done to protect students as they travel to and from school. This includes not just school bus design and manufacturing, but also a concern about how school bus drivers are hired and overseen while carrying out job duties.
Recently, in Washington County, a transportation supervisor was fired after officials learned no school bus drivers were tested for drugs or alcohol since 2014. The firing came shortly after a Washington County school bus driver was charged with driving under the influence and reckless endangerment.
According to a 2017 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), more than 26 million students are transported daily to school and other activities — such as athletic events — via school bus. Although the annual number of fatal school bus crashes makes up only a tiny percentage of the overall number of fatal motor-vehicle crashes, there are still 115 fatal school bus accidents each year, putting children’s lives at risk if the school buses they are on do not have adequate safety features.