published Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

Thurman family files lawsuit, claims Varnell officer was going 90 mph in fatal crash

A portrait of Leon Thurman hangs in the living room as his immediate family talks about the events that took his life on March 5. From left are his widow, Virginia Thurman; his daughter, Missy Mercer; and son, Michael.
A portrait of Leon Thurman hangs in the living room as his immediate family talks about the events that took his life on March 5. From left are his widow, Virginia Thurman; his daughter, Missy Mercer; and son, Michael.
Photo by Tim Barber.
Lawsuit against Varnell
Lawsuit against Varnell

It's been two months since Leon Thurman was killed when an on-duty police officer smashed into the 70-year-old man's car, but the investigation into the crash still isn't complete.

Prosecutors are waiting for results from a special collision reconstruction team to decide whether Varnell, Ga., Officer James Smith was at fault and should be charged. Smith resigned from the police department after the wreck, which happened early in the morning of March 4 as Thurman was delivering newspapers.

Thurman's family wants the city held responsible for their father and husband's death.

"We want to make sure no family has to go through what we're going through," said Leon's son, Michael.

The Thurmans are suing Varnell in a wrongful death case claiming the officer was driving more than twice the speed limit -- more than 90 mph -- when the cruiser crashed. Smith wasn't on a call and his blue lights weren't on, records show. The family is asking for the maximum amount allowed under Georgia law or $750,000, the maximum insurance coverage that Georgia Interlocal Risk Management Agency provides to the city.

The Thurmans' attorney, Robert Smalley, said he has collected evidence that will back up their claims that Smith was going too fast.

The Georgia State Patrol, which is investigating the crash, hasn't released the speed it believes Smith was traveling or any other information about the wreck.

Smith wasn't available for comment.

The city is responsible both for its employees' actions and if an employee is breaking policy or procedure, the suit states. The suit also accuses the city of failing to properly implement policies such as proper training and supervision of its officers.

Varnell City Attorney Terry Miller said he won't comment on the accusations except to say Smith was up to date on his Peace Officer Standards and Training Council requirements.

An internal investigation was in process when Smith resigned, Miller said, and city investigators are still looking into the crash, but are awaiting the state's report.

"You want to know from your own officer's standpoint, why did it happen? Did something go wrong?" he said.

When Smith turned in his resignation letter, he was questioning his ability as an officer, said Police Chief Lyle Grant.

"He just wasn't sure he could do it anymore because of the emotional trauma he was going through," Grant said.

Thurman and Smith were friends. The men would visit occasionally when Thurman was out early, delivering newspapers for the Dalton Daily Citizen.

Smith was a six-year Air Force veteran who was hired at the Varnell Police Department in 2006. He was hired at the department with 778 hours in officer training already completed from past jobs, his records show.

Thurman was well-known in the community and had delivered papers for more than 15 years after retiring from farming.

On March 5, Thurman was crossing Cleveland Highway around 1:30 a.m. when Smith's cruiser slammed broadside into Thurman's Dodge Neon. Riding along with Smith was 19-year-old passenger Cody Coker, who had written permission to participate in a citizen ride-along.

Thurman was ejected from the car and it burst into flames. Smith sustained minor facial injuries and Coker was unharmed.

"It doesn't take much to figure out the officer was obviously speeding," said Michael Thurman.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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