TUPELO • A Prentiss County man will spend the next two years in prison after admitting his guilt in court Friday for the death of a boy getting on a Baldwyn school bus.
Hunter Newman, 24, of 29 County Road 4060, Marietta, entered a plea of guilty to culpable negligence manslaughter for the Halloween 2018 death of 9-year-old Dalen Thomas.
Newman struck Thomas with his vehicle as the boy was crossing Highway 370 in the Pratts community to board a stopped school bus early that morning. Newman and his attorney, Tony Farese of Ashland, have long said Thomas’ death was a tragic accident, caused by a perfect storm of events.
Farese said Newman entered an Alford plea, where someone maintains their innocence but admits that if the case went to trial, they would likely be found guilty.
“Hunter maintained his innocence, but felt it was in his best interest to enter a plea,” Farese said. “There was undisputed testimony in discovery that the two drivers behind him saw the lights and realized it was a school bus.
“Manslaughter carries up to 20 years. Hunter and his family decided to take the deal to avoid the possibility of a longer sentence if it went to trail.”
Following the plea, Circuit Court Judge Chip Mills sentenced Newman to 20 years in prison but suspended 18 years on the condition of future good behavior and the completion of 5 years probation.
“We had been working for 6-8 months trying to get some sort of plea worked out,” said District Attorney John Weddle. “Everything just fell together at the last second to do this (Friday) morning. The defense counsel was available. Dalen’s parents were available.
“So we asked the judge and he said he could do it.”
Weddle said the parents of Thomas were not only in the Lee County Circuit Courtroom for the proceedings, they had approved of the sentencing recommendation. During the victim’s impact statement, Miranda Thomas, Dalen’s mother, said she had forgiven Newman.
Newman was arrested Oct. 31, 2018, just hours after his vehicle struck Thomas as he was crossing a state highway to board a stopped school bus. He was initially charged with aggravated assault. When Thomas later died from the injuries at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, the charges were upgraded to manslaughter. A Lee County grand jury indicted him in February 2019.
According to authorities, Newman was driving along Highway 370 around 6:30 a.m. on Oct. 31, 2018. The wreck happened about a half-hour before sunrise on a flat, straight, open stretch of the two-lane highway east of Baldwyn. Witnesses described the lighting as “dusky” at the time
Newman told troopers he saw flashing lights but thought it was a tractor. When he finally realized it was a bus, it was too late to stop. But the two motorists behind Newman’s westbound truck said they were able to tell it was school bus a lot further away.
Following the court proceeding, Newman was booked into the Lee County Jail. It could take up to a month before he is transferred into the custody of the Mississippi Department of Corrections.