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July 19, 2013

Police officer driving 104 mph before fatal wreck pleads guilty

DALTON, Ga. — A north Georgia police officer who was driving at more than 100 mph when he slammed his patrol car into a newspaper carrier's vehicle, killing the driver, accepted a plea agreement Thursday that keeps him out of prison but prevents him from ever working in law enforcement again.

The family of Leon Thurman, the 70-year-old Daily Citizen carrier killed in the crash, agreed with the sentence and said Thursday they were "glad it was over."

Former Varnell, Ga., police officer James Smith pleaded guilty to first degree vehicular homicide and reckless driving. In addition to a lifetime ban on working in law enforcement, Smith's sentence includes 10 years of probation, a $2,500 fine and 300 hours of community service.

Prosecutors said information from the black box in Smith's patrol car showed he was driving at 104 mph when he slammed into Thurman’s Dodge Neon early on March 5, 2012, while Thurman was delivering papers.

An internal investigation last year showed Smith was not on an emergency call when the crash happened, Varnell Police Chief Lyle Grant said. Smith resigned during the investigation.

Smith said in court Thursday that he had "no words to express that would ease the loss." He said he knew he knew the Thurman family before the crash.

"I loved Mr. Thurman and Virginia Thurman (his wife)," he said, addressing the family members who were in court. "I accept my part in this."

District Attorney Bert Poston said the Thurman family preferred the plea agreement to a lengthy trial.

"They wanted to get it over with, to get closure on it and to get an admission of guilt from (Smith), that he acknowledged his guilt formally and publicly," Poston said.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Thurman’s wife and daughter against the city of Varnell was settled last year for an undisclosed amount. 

Details for this story were provided by The Daily Citizen in Dalton, Ga.

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