By JONATHAN MATTISE, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — For now, a judge won't offer to dismiss the case of the driver in a Tennessee school bus crash that killed six elementary school students last year in return for his probation.
On Thursday, Hamilton County Criminal Court Judge Don Poole said Johnthony Walker, 25, appears to be eligible for diversion, but can't qualify until he's found guilty or pleads guilty under a deal that includes diversion.
The hearing also began discussions about another small bus or van that was on the road about the same time Walker crashed his school bus in Chattanooga. Amanda Dunn, Walker's attorney, said there's video footage and witness testimony about the vehicle, and contends Walker was trying to avoid colliding with it. Dunn only recently revealed the presence of the second vehicle in a court filing.
"This is not necessarily an open and shut case," Dunn said. "We've presented evidence to the court this morning that we think calls into question criminal liability in this case."
Police have said Walker was speeding on Nov. 21 while driving 37 elementary students home when the bus left the curvy road, hit a utility pole, overturned and hit a tree, collapsing the roof.
District Attorney General Neal Pinkston said other evidence will be brought forward that counteracts the evidence about the other vehicle.
Private investigator Kay Baker, who helped find evidence of the other vehicle, told Pinkston in cross-examination that the new video footage doesn't show the crash. Baker said she doesn't know who owned or was driving the unmarked white van.
Walker has been in jail in isolation for his own protection since 2016, and faces 34 charges, including six counts of vehicular homicide. He faces up to six years in jail if convicted, Dunn said.
Several family friends of Walker also testified Thursday in an effort to have his bond reduced from its current amount exceeding $100,000, which he can't afford.
They described Walker as a quiet, well-mannered family man who never got in trouble. He didn't have a car and rode his skateboard to work at two jobs to provide for his family, they said. His other job was at Amazon.
"He stood out as an exceptional young man," said William Watson, with whom Walker lived at times.
Facing the mental trauma of what happened in the crash has been even worse for Walker in an isolation cell, Dunn said, and he hasn't had an opportunity for counseling.
The judge did not immediately decide what to do about the bond, but stressed that Walker is presumed innocent during court proceedings.
"Nothing that will be done concerning a setting of a bond in this case should lessen the fact that six young lives have been lost, and many more young children have been subjected to pain and suffering, and these families have been subjected to pain and suffering, and will be for the rest of their lives," Poole said.