Brenda Gray entering the courtroom on Friday with one of her attorneys, Cliff Corker. (Becky Campbell/Johnson City Press)
Parents of two students injured in a 2012 Washington County school bus wreck had differing opinions after the driver pleaded guilty to some of the charges Friday.
Brenda Gray, 56, of Jonesborough, pleaded guilty in a “best interest” plea to eight counts of aggravated assault by recklessness, one count of felony reckless endangerment and one count of speeding. The remainder of the charges were dismissed.
A best interest plea means Gray felt it was in her best interest to accept the plea offer rather than take her chances at trial and possibly being convicted of the original charges.
Gray had faced 39 counts of aggravated assault in the Sept. 20, 2012, bus crash in which it rolled onto its side and slid into a field. It happened on Mount Wesley Road, a small county road with hills and curves.
In total, Gray’s plea agreement calls for a six-year prison term — four years on the aggravated assaults and two on the endangerment — but she asked Criminal Court Judge Robert Cupp for judicial diversion. If he grants that, Gray would be under probation supervision for a determined amount of time and if she completes all the terms successfully, the convictions would be wiped from her record.
Cupp set the sentencing hearing for Wednesday.
Charles Bunton, whose daughter, Cheyenne, was the most critically injured in the crash, said he was not happy with the outcome.
“It’s not right. She had 39 lives on that bus and they could have died,” Bunton said.
“I had to listen to her everyday where she hurts and she’s gonna have to live with this the rest of her life. What Ms. Gray is probably going to end up getting is going to be nothing compared to what (Cheyenne) hurts,” Bunton said. “She hurts everyday. She has pains in her head still and her back hurts everyday.”
Bunton said he hopes Cupp gives Gray the maximum sentence and orders her to serve her sentence instead of granting diversion.
Sharon Warren and her daughter, Renee, who was on the bus, said they’re glad the case is finally getting resolved.
“I was very pleased,” Warren said about the case moving closer to final resolution. She does not, however, believe Gray should receive diversion.
Renee, who still suffers from recurring pain and nightmares, said she is happy to be getting the whole ordeal behind her.
Clifton Corker, one of Gray’s attorneys, said he and co-counsel Jim Bowman had been preparing to take the case to trial, but Gray expressed her desire to get the case resolved.
Corker and Bowman took the case without payment after Gray’s first attorney, Michael LaGuardia, died from a heart attack last summer. LaGuardia’s death came right after he had reached a plea that would have netted Gray 10 years in prison, but right before the plea was to be entered in court.
After Corker and Bowman began looking at the evidence, they questioned the validity of a crash reconstruction report from the Tennessee Highway Patrol and were preparing to challenge it with their own expert. Primarily, the attorneys didn’t believe the evidence would stand that Gray was speeding, at least not to the extent the state contended.
After Gray was indicted on the charges, District Attorney General Tony Clark said Gray was traveling nearly 60 mph when the crash happened.
Now Corker and Bowman will focus on trying to get a ruling for diversion for Gray. Corker said he will present Gray’s “compelling” life story in that process.
“We’re looking forward to a hearing on Wednesday and put on evidence and really tell our side of the story, not only what happened but the life story of Ms. Gray. She has been a bus driver for most of her life. She’s adopted foster care children who are special-needs children,” Corker said. “She has a very compelling life story that is as compelling as the accident is tragic.”
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Earlier report posted at 11:23 a.m.
A former Washington County school bus driver pleaded guilty today to eight counts of reckless aggravated assault and one count of felony reckless endangerment from a bus crash that injured 39 students she was driving home from David Crockett High School in 2012.
Brenda K. Gray entered a "best interest plea" and sought judicial diversion in the case, meaning her record could be expunged if terms are met. The deal was for six years, so prison or probation could be on the table. Judge Robert Cupp set a sentencing hearing for Wednesday.
She had been charged with 39 counts of reckless aggravated assault resulting from the Sept. 20, 2012, crash on Mount Wesley Road.
Gray also pleaded guilty to speeding. All other charges were dismissed.
The crash happened shortly after Gray picked up 39 David Crockett High School students. Investigators said she was driving between 52 and 60 mph — nearly twice the 30 mph speed limit — when she went off the left side, then overcorrected and went off the right side of the road. The bus then turned over and rolled once as it slid to a stop.
Tennessee Highway Patrol traffic investigators determined Gray was speeding and at fault for the crash.
Keep visiting JohnsonCityPress.com for more details from today's hearing in Criminal Court.