UPDATE (11:15 A.M.) – Judge Scott McKee has delayed his decision into whether to grant immunity toward the Union Pacific train conductor and engineer from last year’s deadly bus crash that killed one student and injured another.
Currently, Robert Ray and Rodger Johnson, the two employees for Union Pacific, have not been charged for their role in the crash.
McKee stressed several times during a nearly hour-long hearing that he was concerned on the constitutional issues, particularly with the separation of powers.
I am a firm believer in the separation of powers. ‘Stay in your lane’ has always been my motto.Judge Scott McKee
He started the hearing by questioning John Stevens’ defense attorneys about why they had a say in who Henderson County District Attorney Mark Hall granted immunity to.
However, McKee also questioned whether he had the authority to approve an immunity request since the conductor and engineer have not had criminal charges filed against them in his court’s jurisdiction.
During the hearing, Hall cited a 1996 capital murder case where a co-defendant was granted immunity to testify against his partner. A court found that the other partner had no legal right to be at an immunity hearing.
Hall used this to say that, therefore, it was his decision on who to grant immunity to.
Justin Weiner and Brian Schmidt have emphasized for months they will show that the train was speeding through Athens at the time of the collision based on black box data. They argued that if this is presented in court, that Ray and Johnson will not have to face criminal prosecution.
Hall strongly fought back against this assertion saying the train was not in fact speeding and that he cannot imagine a situation where either employee will face future charges.
McKee ultimately said he would have to further delve into case law before making a decision. He did not give a hard date on when that might be, but said it would be “shortly.”
ATHENS, Texas (KETK) – A key hearing in the case of the Athens ISD bus crash will take place Friday morning as prosecutors are set to ask the judge that immunity be granted to the train conductor and engineer in exchange for their testimony.
John Stevens, 80, is charged with criminally negligent homicide and injury to a child after the deadly crash with a Union Pacific train last January.
The decision will rest with 392nd District Court Judge Scott McKee at 10 a.m. The request for immunity has been pending since late February, but it was complicated by the onset of the coronavirus.
The collision killed 13-year-old Christopher Bonilla after he was ejected from the bus and severely injured 9-year-old Joselyne Torres. They were less than half a mile from their stop. Stevens was also injured in the collision.
There are no flashing lights or automatic gates at the crossing and it is known for having trees obstructing the vision of motorists. However, there are gates and flashing lights at the two adjacent intersections next to the collision site.
Many in the community at the time of the crash came to Stevens’ defense, saying he was a victim as well. If convicted, he could face up to 22 years in prison.
The family members of the children on the bus have also filed a civil lawsuit against Stevens, Athens ISD, Union Pacific, as well as the conductor and engineer of the train involved.
The suit claims that Stevens “failed to stop for a train, failed to keep a proper lookout, and suffered from driver inattention.” They are seeking more than $1 million in damages and will request a jury trial.
KETK News will be in the courtroom and will update this story at the conclusion of the hearing.