Zack Peterson of the Times Free Press in Chattanooga, Tennessee, is live tweeting from Hamilton County Criminal Court, the site of former school bus driver Johnthony Walker’s criminal trial.
Walker faces 34 total charges related to the Nov. 21, 2016 school bus crash near Chattanooga that killed six students and injured more than a dozen others.
He is charged with six counts of vehicular homicide, seven counts of assault, 18 counts of reckless assault and one count each of reckless endangerment, reckless driving and use of a portable device by a school bus driver.
Walker, who drove for Durham School Services, pleaded not guilty on Monday to all counts. He remains free on bond.
During opening arguments, prosecutors said student injuries ranged from bumps, bruises and cuts to traumatic brain injuries and amputated limbs. They also argue Walker was traveling about 50 mph in a 30 mph zone in curvy residential area while also talking on his cell phone. Walker also deviated from his normal route that day.
The six students who were killed were seated in the middle of the bus and were crushed by the force of the bus roof striking and wrapping around a tree. Prosecutors said Walker did not have alcohol or drugs in his system but he made the wrong choices of using a phone and speeding.
The prosecution said it obtained Walker’s cellular data from the National Transportation Safety Board, and there’s expected to be a hearing on whether the jurors can see that data.
In her opening, defense attorney Amanda Dunn urged the jury not to jump to conclusions and to await the full story of that tragic day to unfold during the trial. She said that some eyewitnesses to the crash have a different story to tell than do the police who responded to the scene and immediately concluded speed was a factor.
She also said a second white vehicle, perhaps a bus that transports senior citizens, passed Walker on the curvy road at the time of the crash, and it may have even veered into Walker's lane. At least one eyewitness later testified under oath that she saw a white van or bus at the time and its driver talking on the phone immediately after the crash, presumably calling 911.
The trial played video footage from the bus. One of the views apparently shows a cell phone in Walker’s hand as students enter the bus. A former co-worker of Walker's at Amazon (Walker worked nights in addition to driving the morning and afternoon route) said she called him minutes before the crash, supported by cell phone records, but that they hung up before the crash occurred.
Meanwhile, a Chattanooga Police Department crash investigator said he concluded on scene that speed was a factor because of a “critical-speed yawn mark” on the road that he said occurs when a vehicle is out of control. He also pointed to the fact that the bus rolled over, which he said is “generally due to speed.”
Dunn cross-examined the investigator in an attempt to call into question his tactics as well as his expertise.
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