July 19, 2013

I accept my part in this’ — Ex-cop James Smith

Patrol car traveling 104 mph before fatal wreck

By Christopher Smith

— James Smith said Thursday he had “no words to express that would ease the loss” of Leon Thurman.

Smith, a former city of Varnell police officer, pleaded guilty to first degree vehicular homicide and reckless driving at the Whitfield County Courthouse in the death of Thurman, a contract newspaper carrier for The Daily Citizen. Thurman, 70, was killed when Smith crashed his patrol car into Thurman’s Dodge Neon early on March, 5, 2012, while Thurman was delivering papers.

Smith was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Cindy Morris to 10 years probation, a $2,500 fine in addition to court fees, 300 hours of community service and to being banned from working as a law enforcement officer again.

Several members of Thurman’s family said they were “glad it was over” after the sentence was pronounced. They declined to comment further.

The family agreed with the sentence, District Attorney Bert Poston said.

“I believe they prefer this resolution instead of a trial,” he said. “They wanted to get it over with, to get closure on it and to get an admission of guilt from (Smith), that he acknowledged his guilt formally and publicly.”

Part of Smith’s community service requires him to speak to law enforcement agencies about the dangers of reckless driving, Morris said.

Information from a black box in Smith’s patrol car, submitted by the district attorney’s office, registered Smith driving at 104 mph seconds before the crash in the 2500 block of Cleveland Highway. Thurman was crossing the highway to continue delivery in the Orchard Way shopping area when his vehicle was hit. The black box indicated Smith slammed on the brakes before the impact.

Varnell Police Chief Lyle Grant said last year an internal investigation showed Smith was not on an emergency call when the crash happened. Smith resigned during the investigation.

Smith said in court Thursday he knew the Thurman family before the “accident.”

“I loved Mr. Thurman and Virginia Thurman (his wife),” he said, addressing the family members who were in court. “I accept my part in this.”

Smith added he talked with Thurman on an almost nightly basis about their “shared faith.”

Poston said if Smith had kept to his original plea of not guilty, trial would’ve started on Aug. 5.

“Any kind of homicide case is difficult because of the emotions involved,” Poston said. “It’s difficult for the family. The trauma process is difficult. Going through appeals after trial is difficult. So we try to respect the family’s wishes to the extent that we’re able to in terms of how we work out a case.”

“I told the family upfront we wouldn’t do anything that they weren’t 100 percent on board with,” he said. “What we did, we based on the desire to resolve the case in this manner so they can have some closure. Everyone agrees that it was a tragedy.”

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Thurman’s wife and daughter against the city of Varnell was settled last year. The family originally asked for $750,000. Attorneys wouldn’t provide a specific dollar amount for the settlement, but the attorney for the family said it was “substantial.”

Ralph Hinman, a local attorney representing Smith, did not immediately return a phone message Thursday afternoon.

Also in court

• Justin Wade Dunn, a Whitfield County man charged with several child sex crimes, is scheduled to go to trial the week of Nov. 18. Trial was pushed from August due to “some witness availability issues,” Poston said.

Dunn is charged with aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery and four counts of child molestation for alleged acts last year against an underage girl whose father caught some of the acts on video, authorities said.

• Jody Michael Stokes, a Rocky Face man accused of texting obscene materials to an underage girl asking for sex two years ago, is now scheduled for trial the week of Aug. 5. A specific day has yet to be determined, Poston said. Stokes is charged with electronically furnishing obscene materials to minors.

• Daniel Hank Yokley, a Tennessee man charged in the 2008 death of retired state trooper William “B.J.” or “Billy” Malone, was taken off the trial calendar because of “developments in the evidence,” Poston said.

“I’m not able to discuss (this) because the case is still pending,” he said. “He will not be placed on a future trial calendar for now.”

Yokley faces charges for aggravated battery, robbery, first degree arson and three counts of murder.