BY KEN LITTLE
Key evidence relating to the crash of a school bus driven by Brenda Gray has yet to be reviewed by defense experts, and that fact prompted Washington County Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp Tuesday to set a trial date in her case.
Gray, 55, of Jonesborough, appeared in Washington County Criminal Court. She could still enter into a plea agreement with the state before the case goes to trial on March 20, defense lawyer Clifton L. Corker said after Gray's hearing.
Meanwhile, the details of a civil settlement with the 39 students who were on the bus driven by Gray have been approved by a judge, said lawyer Donald Spurrell, who represents the teenager most seriously injured in the wreck.
The crash happened on Sept. 20, 2012.
Gray, 55, is a former Washington County school bus driver who crashed a bus filled with David Crockett High School students on Mount Wesley Road at Telford. Most of the students on board were injured.
Gray is charged with 39 counts of felony reckless aggravated assault, and one count each of reckless driving and speeding.
Earlier this year Gray's previous attorney, Michael J. LaGuardia, worked out a plea agreement with prosecutors, but LaGuardia died unexpectedly in July before the agreement was formalized in court.
Gray spent her savings on the services of LaGuardia and was unable to hire another lawyer. Corker agreed to represent Gray free of charge. Veteran criminal defense lawyer James T. Bowman recently agreed to assist in the case.
At Tuesday's hearing, Corker told Cupp that the defense had not received "raw data" discovery material from the Tennessee Highway Patrol (THP) that includes the skid length of the school bus and how far it rolled after crashing.
The information will help an independent expert determine the speed of the bus before the wreck, Corker said.
THP investigators who testified at Gray's preliminary hearing last year said that the school bus was traveling at a speed of between 52 and 60 mph when it overturned. The posted speed limit on Mount Wesley Road is 30 mph.
'AN UNUSUAL SITUATION'
In setting a trial date, Cupp said that he understands where Corker and Bowman are in the case.
"It's an unusual situation," Cupp said in court. "With Mr. LaGuardia dying, (Gray's lawyers) are pro bono."
Bowman said after the hearing that discovery provided by the THP did not include vital information.
"We need that raw data to reach more conclusions," he said.
Erin McArdle, the assistant district attorney general prosecuting the case, said after the hearing that the offer made to Gray through LaGuardia is still on the table for Corker and Bowman to consider.
"That offer was extended to them. It was not rejected," she said. "In view of time wasted, (the case) was set for trial."
Corker said that, after the additional discovery is reviewed, he's hopeful that a plea agreement for Gray can be reached.
"I'm optimistic. Nobody wants to drag a bunch of kids through a trial," he said.
Under state law, the maximum amount available for damages suffered by the teenage victims of the crash is capped at $700,000.
A check for $700,000 was deposited in fall 2012 with the Washington County Circuit Court Clerk's office to eventually be distributed to the 39 David Crockett High School students who were on the bus.
The crash spurred lawsuits from most of the students.
A hearing on how damages will be apportioned to the crash victims was held last month before Judge Thomas Seeley Jr.
He approved apportionment recommendations by Special Master Eddie Lauderback, said Spurrell, who represents one of the students, Cheyenne Bunton.
"He's completed his report and recommendations, and all of his findings have been approved by Judge Seeley. There have been no objections, and it sets out in his report the values of each case," Spurrell said.
Claims will be settled individually, he said. The money will not be paid out to each claimant until he or she reaches 18, Spurrell said.
Seeley said that, because of the cap on damages, Bunton "is going to get only a third of what it would be valued at if the funds had been available."
Reform of the law to increase the cap for victims such as the students on the bus is needed, Spurrell said.
"It needs to happen," he said.
Had there been fatalities in the wreck and the civil damage amount for all families of victims was capped at $700,000, "it would have been a horrendous tragedy," he said.
Bunton suffered head and neck injuries in the crash and has future surgery scheduled, Burrell said.
The full-size bus Gray was driving went out of control on a downhill grade after she topped a hill, the THP investigator said at her 2012 preliminary hearing.
Gray asked "if we wanted to lose our stomachs before we go over the hill," a 14-year-old student riding the bus testified at the hearing.
Gray told troopers after the crash she was the bus driver and was "traveling down Mount Wesley Road and was distracted by some children."
Gray, who remains free on bond, did not say anything Tuesday in court. Corker said she is looking forward to putting the crash behind her.
"This has caused her a lot of emotional pain knowing that anyone got hurt. Her own child was on the bus. She never would put them at risk," Corker said.