Calling it a “tragic, tragic accident” and the result of a “perfect storm,” attorney Tony Farese argued Thursday during a preliminary hearing that his client, Hunter Newman, shouldn’t be bound over to a grand jury to face charges of culpable negligence manslaughter in the Oct. 31 death of nine-year-old Dalen Thomas.
Judge Sadie Holland determined otherwise.
After about an hour of testimony from two Mississippi Highway Patrol investigators and arguments from Farese and Assistant District Attorney Paul Gault, Holland ruled that she believed the case needed to be heard by the grand jury, possibly as early as January.
“Folks, this is very hard for me. My heart goes out to both sides,” Holland said. “But you know it has been determined that this school bus was sitting there with flashing red lights on and the crossing arm out. And this child was trying to board the bus. And this child was hit by an oncoming vehicle. There was only one person in the vehicle, Mr. Newman. And a few hours later the life of this precious child expired. It appears there is probable cause to believe an offense has been committed and that your client has committed it and should be bound over to a grand jury.”
Newman, 22, of Marietta, had charges against him upgraded from aggravated assault on Nov. 20. He was originally charged the same day of the accident on Hwy. 370 in the Pratts Community, but those charges were dropped when the new charge was introduced.
Around 6:36 on the morning of Oct. 31, Thomas started to cross the westbound lane of the highway to board the bus after it had stopped with its lights on and crossing arm out when Newman ran the bus’ stop sign and struck the child. Thomas was transported to North Mississippi Medical Center and flown to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, where he later died.
Holland ruled that Newman can remain free on the same bond he posted on Nov. 20.
Evidence that likely played the biggest role in Thursday’s hearing came from Mississippi Highway Patrol investigator Brad Hamblin, who said two witnesses who were behind Newman’s truck stated they could tell the vehicle they were approaching was a school bus, with one saying he never saw the brake lights on Newman’s truck come on prior to the impact. Hamblin said one witness, Brandy Floyd, who was approximately four to eight car-lengths behind Newman, stated she saw the strobe light and yellow caution lights flashing way before the bus and started slowing down and she could tell it was a bus. She said the red lights were on before he approached it and everyone had time to stop.
According to Hamblin, Newman stated said he thought the lights belonged to a tractor or other piece of road equipment and didn’t realize until it was too late that it was a school bus.
A major point of contention Farese focused on was how light it was outside and how that impacted visibility. Hamblin testified that both Floyd and the other witness, Vincent Sellers, described the lighting as “dusky; not quite daylight, not quite dark,” but that they both could tell the vehicle they were approaching was a school bus. Hamblin said during the accident reconstruction he had used a prism pole to see how far away from scene the bus lights could have been seen. The pole indicated lights could be seen from the pole from 2,139 feet and that the roadway in that area is relatively flat with visibility of about a half mile. Hamblin testified that a school bus’ warning lights are nine feet high, suggesting they could be seen from farther out.
On cross-examination, Farese challenged the reliability of the prism pole for determining distance because the test was performed in the daytime, not at a similar time of the crash. He asked Hamblin whether he had been back to the scene to check lighting at that time of morning, to which Hamblin answered he had not.
On rebuttal, Gault asked Hamblin whether a flashing light like the strobe light on top of the bus, which was flashing, or the other lights could be seen better in the day or night, drawing an objection from Farese. Holland allowed the testimony.
“You’ll see it better if it’s darker,” Hamblin said.
Questions point to defense arguments
Farese’s questioning likely foreshadows the approach he will take should the case reach trial. Among points Farese made through questioning was that Newman was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs during the collision, not speeding or driving recklessly, and there was no indication he was using his phone at the time. He also pointed to Thomas’ handicaps and questioned the actions of the bus driver, Art Prentice, and whether he used approved procedures to help Thomas cross the road safely, and whether the bus’ equipment was working properly. Another point Farese sought to make was that Thomas was not restrained by his great-grandfather, James Thomas, prior to him entering the roadway.
Farese questioned Hamblin as to whether Prentice normally used a hand signal to let Dalen know the path was clear to approach the bus. Hamblin said Prentice stated he did. Farese also asked whether the Baldwyn School District’s policies on bus safety where special needs students were involved matched the state’s requirements, to which Hamblin said he was not aware. Farese also questioned whether Hamblin had checked Prentice’s driving history or whether there had been any mechanical issues with the bus, to which Hamblin again said no.
According to the investigation, Prentice said it is common practice for him to put his school bus caution lights on about 10 to 12 bus lengths away from his stop, and then to come to a complete stop before pulling the door handle, which activates the red lights, crossing bar and stop sign. The witnesses said the bus’ red lights were fully activated at the time of the accident.
“Did Mr. Prentice give any statement of what his training was to assist vulnerable students?” Farese asked.
“He said he had his dome light on and hand out (the window),” Hamblin said. “He said he didn’t give a signal to Dalen to come across.”
Farese also suggested Thomas’ great-grandfather, Thomas, was not standing with Dalen. Hamblin said Thomas stated he was with him at the time and when Dalen moved to cross.
“How did Dalen get away from him?” Farese asked.
“He said when the crossbar came out, that’s when the child started going,” Hamblin said. “That’s when the great-grandfather tried to get him to stop. He remembered the crossbar coming out. It was out before the child entered the road.”
Farese sought to paint the events as a tragedy that did not rise to the level of a crime.
“I don’t believe it should be bound over to grand jury,” Farese said. “This is a tragic accident with a perfect storm. 6:30 in the morning. Child who is autistic and deaf in one ear. Grandfather who wasn’t nearby. Bus driver who didn’t give a signal to the child. It’s a terrible, terrible accident. It’s not culpable negligence manslaughter. We were not speeding through; we were not passing a stopped school bus as if we’re passing through. Nobody said we were speeding or operating a motor vehicle in a careless or reckless manner. We should not be charged with a crime. My heart goes out to the family, but we can’t base this on sympathy. One tragedy shouldn’t cause another tragedy.”