US: Former astronaut pleads guilty in crash that killed 2 young girls

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Alabama: A former NASA space shuttle commander, who had been indicted on murder and assault charges for his role in a 2016 car crash that killed two young sisters in Alabama, pleaded guilty to lesser charges Thursday and was sentenced to four years in prison, followed by 10 years of probation.

At the time of the crash, the former astronaut, James Halsell Jr., 64, was on probation for an earlier crash in California that had occurred while he was under the influence of alcohol, prosecutors said.

The June 6, 2016, crash in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, killed Niomi James, 11 and her sister, Jayla Parler, 13, who were riding in a car driven by their father. Halsell had refused to allow law enforcement officials to check his blood for alcohol or controlled substances, prosecutors said. Officials acquired a court order to check his blood hours later; it showed no alcohol in his system.

At a hearing Thursday in the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse, Halsell, of Huntsville, Alabama, pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter and two counts of first-degree assault.

If Halsell violates the terms of his probation, he can be sentenced to up to 16 years in prison, according to prosecutors in Alabama.

James R. Sturdivant, a lawyer for Halsell, said Thursday in a statement that his client had accepted responsibility for the crash. He said that a toxicology report “clearly showed that Ambien/Zolpidem sleep medication was the primary cause of the bizarre and tragic sequence of events that occurred that night.”

The night of the crash in Alabama, Niomi and Jayla were in a car driven by their father, Pernell James, when a car driven by Halsell struck his Ford Fiesta from the rear. Also in the car was James’ fiancee. After the hearing, James said Halsell should have been sentenced to “the max.”

“They didn’t even get a chance to live,” James said of Niomi and Jayla. “They had a chance to be anything they wanted, and it got taken away.”

Hays Webb, the district attorney for the 6th Judicial Circuit of Alabama, which includes Tuscaloosa County, said he had agreed to let Halsell plead to a lesser charge, in part, because it carried a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. “We offered the maximum, under manslaughter, and thought that was appropriate,” he told reporters outside the courtroom.

With respect to the sentencing, Webb said he did not believe Halsell’s work history “influenced or benefited him in any fashion – absolutely not.”

According to a biography on a NASA website, Halsell joined the space agency in 1990 and became an astronaut in 1991. By 2000, he had been a pilot or mission commander on five trips and had logged more than 1,250 hours in space. Sturdivant called his client “an American hero,” noting that Halsell had also been a colonel in the Air Force.

Speaking to reporters after the hearing, James briefly described his final moments with his daughters.

“Niomi did most of the talking; Jayla was telling her to be quiet,” James recalled with a smile. “The one thing I do remember the most was them telling me they loved me,” he said.

He added: “They said, ‘Dad, we’re tired,’ and they laid down. That’s the last thing they said to me.”