(WBIR - Knoxville) Investigators said 53-year-old Dewayne Kelley was completely sober when he was behind the wheel of a Chrysler 300 that sped down Kingston Pike, through a shopping center parking lot, and killed a woman when the vehicle crashed through the wall of the Tomato Head restaurant.
Although Kelley was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, prosecutors said he was absolutely criminally negligent in the fatal crash because he has multiple sclerosis and knew he was not physically capable of safely operating a vehicle when he chose to drive on February 28, 2013.
"The proof would show that due to his medical condition, he did not have control of his motor functions and muscle movement that he should have had. And at that point it made him unable to remove his foot from the accelerator pedal," said Knox County assistant district attorney Sarah Keith.
Kelley is a retired federal supervisory probation officer with no criminal history. He retired in 2009 due to his medical condition and was in court Friday in a motorized scooter. Kelley's clean criminal background qualifies him for a maximum sentence of up to two years behind bars, which Kelley agreed to with a request for judicial diversion. Kelley was granted diversion, meaning he will serve no prison time and the conviction will not go on his permanent record if he stays out of trouble for the next two years. Kelley's drivers license has also been suspended for two years.
Relatives of Debbie Thompson gave victim impact statements at Friday's hearing. The 58-year-old Crossville woman was standing at the counter at Tomato Head when she was killed. Thompson was a lifelong educator and principal at Bledsoe County Middle School known affectionately as "Miss Debbie."
"My life, our family's lives, and the lives of numerous friends, teachers, and students have been devastated," said husband Elvin Thompson.
Elvin Thompson said he was with Debbie at the counter as they prepared to leave the restaurant, but he decided to use the restroom before making the return trip to Crossville. That is where he heard the explosion of the car crashing through the wall and scrambled to find his childhood sweetheart.
"For some unknown reason, I was not a witness to the accident," said a tearful Elvin Thompson. "After searching frantically everywhere for my wife, we finally found her with her feet sticking out from beneath the car, her body pinned totally underneath it. Right then I knew my life had changed forever... I had lost the one person in this world that I cared the most about."
Elvin and Debbie's daughter, Courtney Ko, also made a victim impact statement and lamented what she perceived as weak punishment for Kelley.
"I absolutely do not understand how someone's negligence on so many levels can cause death to an innocent individual and have an outcome of such soft punishment," said Ko. "How can Mr. Kelley not receive a firmer penalty for a crime and outcome so severe?"
Ko spoke of how she was in the process of moving back to Tennessee to be closer to her mother. One of the main motivations for Ko was that she and her husband were planning to start a family of their own. Ko said she wanted her future children to be close to Elvin and Debbie.
"My mother was a special education teacher and a principal by trade, but she was a mother by heart. She was a mother to everyone, not just her own kids. Her students, my friends, and everyone who knew her had a mother in 'Miss Debbie,'" said Ko.
Ko choked back tears as she described the personal trauma she endures in the wake of her mother's death.
"Knoxville holds many memories for our family and is a place with so many cherished memories that we now dread visiting. We cannot drive down I-40 or Kingston Pike without seeing the place where mom was killed," said Ko. "Every time I sit at the window of a restaurant or stand and wait in line, I cannot help but worry about someone driving through the building. The thoughts just sometimes completely consume you."
During the impact statements, Elvin Thompson told judge Bob McGee that Kelley has not reached out to the family to express apologies or sympathy in the nearly nine months since the crash. When Kelley addressed the court at the end of Friday's proceedings, he explained to the Thompsons that he wanted to contact them immediately, but was advised not to during a pending criminal case.
"I just want to say I am deeply sorry to the family," said Kelley. "I apologize and am deeply, deeply sorry."
The Thompson family has filed a civil lawsuit against Kelley that is still pending.