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Driver convicted in 2005 Waxahachie truck crash

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STAFF REPORT
Waxahachie - After two years since a tractor-trailer left a smoldering trail of devastation and heartache on a June afternoon, an Ellis County jury handed down probation to the truck driver last week.

James Leon Williams, 57, was found guilty on two counts of criminally negligent homicide in the deaths of Debra Hagar Carder and James Richard Nation.

The jury also found Williams used his tractor trailer as a deadly weapon when he barrelled over Nation's car and rear-ended Carder's car on Interstate 35E.

When the truck finally stopped on Interstate 35E, a 45-year-old mother was dead in one vehicle and a 24-year-old newlywed was mortally injured in another, which was run over by the semi.

The trial followed months of delays, including a successful effort by Williams' attorneys, Mark Griffith and David Finn, to toss veteran State District Judge Gene Knize from the case earlier this year.

The case was delayed for months after Judge Knize was removed over allegations that he threatened Finn during jury selection.

The defense attorney accused the judge, who is also a former district attorney, of angrily telling him to never be late to his court again, although Finn insists he was never tardy.

It wasn't until Judge Knize dismissed the jury without explanation, Finn said, he decided to file a motion calling for the judge's removal.

Finn said he believes the original jury included several people who would have given his client the best chance for acquittal.

Visiting Judge Bill Coker of Dallas, who presided over the February hearing which led to Judge Knize's removal, issued a one-page ruling which did not include an explanation.

Judge Knize, who was not at the hearing, denied threatening Finn.

According to a Waxahachie police report, Williams' truck rear-ended Nation's car, which had stopped or slowed behind Carder's. The truck then drove over Nation's car and collided with Carder's vehicle, police say. The tractor-trailer rear-ended a bread truck, which also collided with Carder and then landed on its side atop a third car. No one else was seriously injured.

Nation's car ended up on the grass beside the shoulder, where it burst into flames.
The smell of burning fuel filled the air. Bags of bread were strewn about, and Carder's car horn was stuck blaring.

Mr. Finn contends that Mr. Williams, who was not seriously injured, was in the left lane behind the bread truck when it stopped suddenly. So Mr. Williams slammed on his brakes and veered to the right before the crash.

'An accident as tragic as this one is still an accident,' Mr. Finn said.

Assistant District Attorney Don Maxfield, the prosecutor handling the case, said he's prepared to prove what's in the indictment, which alleges six possible driving offenses that alone or in combination caused the deaths. Among them is 'falling asleep while operating his vehicle.'

This isn't the first time Mr. Williams has been accused of falling asleep at the wheel. On a Sunday morning in April 2003, Mr. Williams was driving a tractor-trailer in Waco when he allegedly fell asleep and swerved into a guardrail, sending debris into traffic, according to a Waco police report. No one was injured.

Mr. Finn disputed the account of the 2003 accident, and he said there is no evidence his client fell asleep or was intoxicated during the fatal crash.

The jury in Mr. Williams' trial probably won't learn of the Waco accident.

'Prior incidences of misconduct of a defendant are generally not admissible at the guilt phase of a trial,' Mr. Maxfield said.

The trial may just be starting, but Ms. Nation doesn't expect to be satisfied with its outcome.

'I lied to my kids because I always told them there was justice; we have a justice system,' she said. 'I lied because there is not one.'

Ms. Nation shakes with rage and heaves with sadness for her son, an auto mechanic who was to leave on his honeymoon the afternoon of the crash. When her grandchildren ask when their uncle will come back from heaven, she has no words.

Ms. Carder's daughter, Jennifer Hagar, misses the love notes that her mother packed for her and her younger brother when they went on overnight trips.

'She was looking forward to seeing me and my brother get out of college and get married,' Jennifer Hagar said. 'She wanted those grandbabies, but when we were done with college.'

Jennifer's stepfather, Darrell Carder, misses his family.

'It didn't leave a hole in my heart; it crushed it,' Mr. Carder said of his wife's death. 'It hurts so bad to even go to her side of the family, see them that look so much like her. I can't handle it.'

Amid the stomach-churning sadness, though, there are moments to smile.

Like when Richard Nation recalls being the best man at his son's wedding or when Anna Botzer talks of the crowd that bid her daughter farewell.

'I've never seen so many people at a funeral,' said Ms. Botzer, 72. 'She was really loved.'

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