Court appearance of driver from Athens bus crash moved to June

Crime & Public Safety

ATHENS, Texas (KETK) — A court appearance of the driver from the Athens school bus crash with a train has been postponed.

John Franklin Stevens, 80, is charged with criminally negligent homicide and injury to a child. On Jan. 25, 2019, he pulled onto railroad tracks and the bus was struck by a train.

13-year-old Christopher Bonilla, a passenger on the bus, was killed. An elementary school student, Josylynn Torres, 9, was injured in the wreck.

Stevens has entered a plea of not guilty. He was originally set to appear in court on April 7. A status hearing court date with the judge is now set for June 7.

The date was postponed after the Texas Attorney General’s Office recently took over prosecution. Henderson County District Attorney Jenny Palmer, citing conflict of interest, requested that she be recused from the case.

Stevens has not had a court appearance since August of last year when Judge Scott McKee allowed prosecutors to grant immunity to Robert Ray and Roger Johnson, the Union Pacific conductor and engineer, respectively.

McKee cited several cases from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that outlined a judge’s role in granting immunity. He said that his only course to reject a request was if he found the DA to be abusing his power, which he did not in this case.

“Immunity, after all, is the coin the government must pay to obtain the waiver of a person’s right against self-incrimination and the information that he has about some crime… Therefore it is this Court’s opinion that absent an abuse of the District Attorney’s discretion, the Court should ‘stay in its lane’…”

JUDGE SCOTT MCKEE, 392ND DISTRICT COURT

During the immunity hearing, prosecutors and lead attorneys for Stevens disagreed heavily on the speed at which the train was traveling at the time of the collision. Stevens’ defense team has held since February that the train was going too fast at the time of the crash.

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