BY KEN LITTLE
JONESBOROUGH -- It will be at least Aug. 29 before former Washington County school bus driver Brenda Gray is sentenced in connection with a crash last September that injured most of the 39 students on board her bus.
Gray's lawyer, Michael J. LaGuardia, died unexpectedly on July 1. Appearing Monday in Washington County Criminal Court, Gray told Judge Robert Cupp that all her money is tied up in LaGuardia's estate.
A plea agreement had been reached earlier this month, but Cupp would not accept it unless Gray had a lawyer in the courtroom.
On Monday, Gray and Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle conferred with Cupp at the bench before the judge set an Aug. 29 return court date to review the status of the case.
The crash happened on Sept. 20, 2012. Gray was behind the wheel of a bus filled with David Crockett High School students that rolled over and crashed on Mount Wesley Road.
Gray, 55, of Jonesborough, is charged with 39 counts of reckless aggravated assault, and one count each of reckless driving and speeding.
$14,000 FOR LAWYER
"Ms. Gray has advised me that she cashed in her retirement pay to Mr. LaGuardia," Cupp said.
Gray gave $14,000 to LaGuardia, the judge said.
"She talked to his office and was told the most she can do is take the case to probate court," Cupp said.
A lawyer practicing in the First Judicial District where Gray lives may take her case pro bono, Cupp said. Cupp said he will speak with the lawyer, while acknowledging that the case must be resolved.
"I can't delay this, but I've got some moral obligations in this case," Cupp told Gray. "You didn't put yourself in this situation. You did everything you were asked to do."
Gray, who left the courthouse with several family members, remains free on $50,000 bond.
The bus crash on the winding, rural road in Telford resulted in injuries requiring hospitalization for at least 26 of the 39 students on board.
Tennessee Highway Patrol investigators who testified at the preliminary hearing after the wreck said that the school bus was traveling at a speed of between 52 and 60 mph when Gray lost control and the bus overturned.
The bus was traveling nearly twice the posted speed limit on the narrow road, investigators said. The speed limit on the road is 30 mph.
The full-size bus went out of control on a downhill grade after Gray topped a hill, the THP investigator said at Gray's preliminary hearing last year.
Just before the bus topped a hill, 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.
The student said that Gray made the statement just before the bus crested a hill on Mount Wesley Road.
Gray told troopers after the crash "she was the bus driver [and] she was traveling down Mount Wesley Road and was distracted by some children."
LaGuardia said earlier this year after a court appearance by Gray that he would seek judicial diversion, and not jail time, for his client.
The crash resulted in numerous lawsuits filed against the Washington County school system on behalf of students on the bus.
State law puts a cap of $700,000 on what can be paid out in total damages to the students.
A check for $700,000 was deposited last fall 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 statute of limitations for filing a civil complaint in connection with the bus crash is one year.
After that time elapses, a hearing will be scheduled and a judge will decide how the $700,000 will be divided among the crash victims.