Former Durham School Services bus driver Johnthony Walker was sentenced to four years in prison for crashing his school bus on Nov. 21, 2016, killing six children and injuring 23 more.
Walker received two years for six counts of criminally negligent homicide, four years for 11 counts of reckless aggravated assault, 11 months and 29 days for six counts of assault, two years for the reckless endangerment charge, six months for the reckless driving charge, and 30 days for the electronic device charge.
Judge Don Poole on Tuesday ordered that the sentences be served concurrently, so the total time amounts to four years. Walker has 30 days to file an appeal.
Last July, the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office charged Walker with 34 total charges. A March 1 jury decision found Walker guilty of 27 counts and dismissed six. One more count was dropped before the sentencing, leaving the total number of charges at 27.
“In criminal law, the person’s intent—whether that be evil intent or whatever—determines the degree of homicide,” Judge Poole reminded. He said that Walker’s case necessitated consideration of intent and also reckless behavior. He also explained the previous cases and guidelines that shaped the sentence.
The jury’s decision came after almost two hours of testimonies from parents who lost children in the crash, a former supervisor of Walker, the prosecution and the defense. Tears abounded, and there was one expletive-laced outburst directed at Walker’s attorney Amanda Dunn.
“I just want you to know, Johnthony Walker, you took somebody from me that was all I had,” said Diamound Brown, who was one of the first on the scene but was unable to see her son D’Myunn Brown before he died at the hospital and was later buried. “This was a situation that could have been prevented had Johnthony just stopped and thought about his speed limit, his picking up the phone, (and) his rules that he signed when he signed up for the job.”
Jasmine Mateen lost her daughter Zyaira in the crash. She testified that the district informed her last Thursday that her other two daughters who were also aboard may have traumatic brain injuries.
She also said that she observed and talked to Walker about his speeding and talking roughly to students. She testified that she wrote letters, made calls and went in person to report Walker’s driving, which would “make kids hit their heads, fall into the aisle, out of their seats” to the principal, board of education and transportation department, but that “nothing happened.”
“I not only blame Walker, I blame the board of education and Durham as well,” she said. “If the school board hadn’t told (Durham) not to fire him because they were short-staffed before the crash, my child would still be here.”
Misty Nash, whose daughter Zoie was killed, said she and her son Zachariah, who was injured in the crash, don’t blame Walker, and would prefer that he receive help rather than prison time. “Johnthony, I forgive you. I don’t blame you,” she said. “Everybody does things that they shouldn’t do.”
Cathy Corvin, a facilities manager for the district and Walker’s one-time supervisor, testified that Walker was a pleasant, helpful, dependable worker and a “quiet, soft-spoken” person in interactions with her.
Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston reviewed evidence presented earlier in court that showed Walker was going 47-51 mph on a “narrow, curvy” road, with no shoulder, where the suggested speed limit was 25 mph but no more than 30 mph. Additionally, he said, phone records show that Walker’s “phone was in service at the time of the crash.”
“That shows little to no regard for human life, especially when you’re driving a school bus with 37 children in your care,” he stated.
Pinkston said that the victims’ vulnerability was enhanced due to their youth, and that Walker’s actions were carried out with “lack of hesitation when the risk to human life was high.” He proposed that these enhancement factors be added to considerations for Walker’s sentence, to take alternative sentencing off the table, and allow for consecutive sentencing and labeling as a “dangerous offender.”
He urged Judge Poole to consider the permanent physical and intellectual injuries, as well as emotional trauma suffered by several students.
Walker next made statements acknowledging the impact the incident has had on the families. “I never meant for any of this to happen and I just want to say that I’m sorry,” he finished.
Walker’s attorney Amanda Dunn reviewed Walker’s testimony that he was going 35 mph and that he swerved to avoid a white van. She argued against the victims’ ages enhancing their vulnerability, because “anybody on that bus regardless of their age could have passed away as a result of their injuries.”
She added that Walker did not intend to violate the law, because he allegedly swerved for the white van and asked for consideration of mitigating factors, such as his former work history, work ethic, character and lack of a record, for a lighter sentence. She requested consideration of Walker’s time already served, almost one year in solitary confinement at Hamilton County Jail.
Judge Poole said the facts that Walker had no previous record and was continually employed, worked in his favor. However, he rejected Dunn’s argument that Walker had no sustained effort to break the law, because he had sped before. He agreed with Dunn’s points on age not affecting vulnerability and that Walker was not a “dangerous offender.” But he said diversion was not an option, due to the horrific nature of the incident.
“That sentence is as long as I can make it, under the law,” he said. He added his appreciation for the forgiveness displayed by some of the victims’ families.
Watch Tuesday’s full court proceedings. Viewer discretion is advised, due to the emotional testimony from family members of the deceased.