Driver in deadly Knoxville restaurant crash pleads guilty

Driver in deadly Knoxville restaurant crash pleads guilty

Dewayne Kelley Dewayne Kelley
Deborah Thompson (source: Bledsoe County Schools) Deborah Thompson (source: Bledsoe County Schools)

6 News Reporter

KNOXVILLE (WATE) - The driver of a vehicle that crashed into a Knoxville restaurant, killing a Bledsoe County middle school principal, has pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide and was sentenced to two years judicial diversion.

Dewayne Kelley, 53, entered the plea Friday in court. His driver's license was also revoked for two year.

Police say Kelley lost control of his car, plunged into the Tomato Head restaurant in West Knoxville on Feb. 28 and struck Deborah Thompson, 58, while she was checking out at the register.

After nine months of investigation, the District Attorney's office determined the accident was a result of his medical condition. Kelley has an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis, even arriving at court on a motorized scooter.

The District Attorney's office stated that although Kelley had a driver's license at the time of the accident, he should have known his condition would cause danger to others.

Deborah Thompson's family was in court for the plea deal. Her husband and daughter gave emotional statements to the judge.

"Not only do I miss her terribly, but the thought of someone's negligence hurting her that badly and knowing she left the world in such a tragic way is inconceivable," Courtney Ko, the victim's daughter said through tears.

Elvin Thompson was with his wife in Tomato Head when Kelley's car crashed into the restaurant, but he had just stepped into the bathroom.

"That's where I heard the explosion. After searching franticly for my wife, we found her with her feet sticking up underneath the car, her body pinned underneath it," Thompson said in court.  

Kelley expressed remorse for his actions.

"I apologize and I am deeply, deeply sorry," Kelley told the court and the victim's family.

Kelley pleaded to an information charge, meaning the case was not reviewed by a grand jury. He faces two years supervised probation for the negligence charge.

"It's the existence of a situation that he should be aware of and should act differently, you could contrast this with a reckless situation where the person not only knows but acts willfully despite that knowledge," explained assistant District Attorney Sarah Keith,

The victim's family felt the punishment isn't enough.

"I have had a hard time not questioning law and the justice system. 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.

Kelley also applied for and received judicial diversion because he does not have a previous record. If he meets the terms of his probation his record will be expunged.

While the criminal case may be over, Kelley still faces a civil suit. The Thompson family is suing him and his insurance company for wrongful death. Thompson is seeking $3 million in damages.

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