Thousands Sign Petition in Defense of Athens ISD Bus Driver

John Franklin Stevens pleaded not guilty to charges of injury to a child and manslaughter on July 3

More than 4,000 people have signed a petition urging authorities to drop charges against the man who was at the wheel of an Athens Independent School District bus when it was struck by a freight train in late January, resulting in the death of a 13-year-old boy.

The petition is addressed to the office of the Henderson County District Attorney, Athens Mayor Monte Montgomery and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

The bus driver, John Franklin Stevens, pleaded not guilty to charges of injury to a child and manslaughter at his arraignment July 3, court records show.

In addition to the boy who was killed in the crash, a 9-year-old girl was injured. Stevens was indicted June 5.

A statement from the Henderson County District Attorney's Office said the bus stopped at the crossing and proceeded before the train. The locomotive shoved the bus down the track and into crossing signage and gates.

The wording on the petition says the tracks have a "curve that is impossible to see around, there are no signals, we have feared this crossing, many avoid it."

"The loss of the young boys [sic] life was tragic, many of us shed tears for him, for his family," the petition goes on to say. "However every report shows that the driver followed the law."

The Henderson County District Attorney's Office issued the following statement about the petition.

“While I understand and appreciate the compassion and concern of so many in support of Mr. Stevens, our system of justice cannot operate on anything other than the fair and equal treatment of all who come before it. It must not be driven by popular opinion or simply because a particular person has come within it's reach.

The time-tested and venerated adage that 'Justice is Blind' means that those whose duty it is to uphold the law cannot be a 'respecter of persons.' While facts, circumstances and the elements of a particular offense drive the prosecution of all criminal cases, our legal system also takes into account the background and mitigating factors of the individual charged. This case will be treated the same, and proceed like any other.”

The change.org petition had 4,049 signatures as of 7:45 p.m. Wednesday.

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