Judge OKs immunity for railroad employees involved in fatal Athens bus crash case

Judge OKs immunity for railroad employees involved in fatal Athens bus crash case

HENDERSON, Texas (KLTV) - A Henderson County judge has granted the state’s request to grant immunity to the two Union Pacific employees involved in the case of a former Athens ISD school bus driver charged in a fatal bus crash.

Brian Schmidt, one of John Stevens’ defense attorneys, said that Judge Scott McKee of the 392nd Judicial District Court issued his ruling on Monday. The ruling will allow Henderson County District Attorney Mark Hall to give the two UP employees immunity from possible prosecution in exchange for their testimony.

“While we respect the Judge’s ruling that he cannot veto the district attorney’s decision to grant the Union Pacific employees immunity from criminal prosecution, we nonetheless have serious questions as to why it was necessary for the district attorney to offer immunity to these employees in exchange for their testimony in the first place,” Schmidt said in a statement. “Typically, when immunity is offered, it is contemplated by a witness or the government that the person requesting immunity has some potential criminal liability for which they seek to not be prosecuted.”

Stevens, of Mabank, was indicted in July of 2019 connection with the fatal bus-train crash. He pleaded not guilty to manslaughter/negligent homicide and two counts of injury to a child causing serious bodily injury.

District Attorney Mark Hall released a statement Tuesday in response to the judge’s decision:

The Court absolutely made the correct decision in allowing the state’s request for immunity in this case. Although a separation of powers argument was not raised by the defense, Judge McKee is always diligent to adhere to the Constitution, and I appreciate his thoughtful consideration of all aspects of the issue, and confirming that the offer of immunity from prosecution is within the sound discretion of the District Attorney.

The fact immunity was offered in the first place was only to facilitate the proceedings in this case and the defense request for depositions. It in no way suggests that either the conductor or engineer were in any way responsible for the collision that took the life of Christopher Bonilla and severely injured Joselyne Torres, as I believe the facts will show that the only person responsible for that is the defendant, Mr. Stevens.

One Athens ISD student was killed and two others were injured in a bus-train collision.
One Athens ISD student was killed and two others were injured in a bus-train collision.

McKee made some changes to the request, but ultimately granted it because he felt the district attorney didn’t abuse his discretion in making the request, Schmidt said. He added the judge reminded the DA that he only has the authority to request immunity in felony cases.

Schmidt said the jury trial for the case may wind up being held “well into” 2021 because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He said there is a massive backlog of cases because the Office of Court Administration has ruled that no jury trials will be allowed until Oct. 1.

Both sides met in a hearing last week to discuss the immunity request. According to Justin Weiner, another defense attorney on the case, McKee apologized to all the involved parties for the additional delay and said that he would take the matter under advisement and make a decision as soon as possible.

Earlier this year, Stevens’ attorneys filed an application with the court seeking to depose the Union Pacific engineer and conductor who were controlling the train when the crash occurred.

“We’ve been denied the ability to speak to the engineers, to interview them about the events before, during, and after,” Weiner said in a previous KLTV story. “We felt it was very important to do that based on the information from the digital event recorder, or black box, showing the train was speeding in violation of the Athens municipal ordinance.”

Weiner said they want to talk to the engineers because the engineers will be material witnesses in Stevens’ case.

“I think you can just take a look at it like any other case. If you’ve got an eyewitness to an offense, an alleged offense, you sure as heck would like to know what they have to say,” Weiner said in the previous story. “It’s vitally important to our defense.”

The crash happened on Jan. 25, 2019, at the crossing on Cream Level Road in Athens. The bus had stopped before the crossing, and then Stevens drove onto the track directly in front of the westbound train, according to investigators.

Christopher Bonilla, a 13-year-old Athens Middle School student, was killed in the crash. Nine-year-old Joselyne Torres, a student from Central Athens Elementary, was injured when she was trapped inside the bus.

Christopher Bonilla, a 13-year-old student at Athens Middle School, died in a crash involving a school bus and a train. (Source: Athens ISD)
Christopher Bonilla, a 13-year-old student at Athens Middle School, died in a crash involving a school bus and a train. (Source: Athens ISD)

Athens police release crash report on deadly school bus, train collision

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