The lawyer for a former NASA astronaut who led five shuttle missions is blaming the sleep aid Ambien for causing a crash that killed a pair of young sisters in Alabama three years ago.
Former NASA astronaut and space shuttle commander James Halsell Jr. is charged with causing a 2016 crash in rural Alabama that killed Niomi Deona James, 11, and Jayla Latrick Parler, 13. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of reckless murder after he was accused of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the crash, according to The Guardian.
Halsell told troopers he did not remember the crash and his "speech was slurred, eyes were dilated, clothes dishevelled and he was unstable on his feet and smelled of alcohol,” a trooper wrote in a court deposition at the time of his arrest, the outlet reported.
The crash happened very early in the morning on a highway Halsell reportedly mistook for Interstate 20/59, telling authorities at the time he had been on his way to Louisiana to see his son, AL.com reports.
Halsell's attorney is now not disputing that Halsell was under the influence of sleeping pills, but argued his client had an "abnormal reaction."
"An abnormal response to the sleep aid zolpidem, sold under the name Ambien in the United States, induced a sleep-driving episode that resulted in a horrible accident,” Halsell's attorney Jim Sturdivant told local Alabama station WAAY-TV.
“It is not uncommon for zolpidem or Ambien to render a person incapable of controlling their actions and totally unaware of their behavior. While Col. Halsell deeply regrets the tragedy this incident created, he is innocent of the charge that is being brought against him by the Tuscaloosa County district attorney’s office,” he continued.
Ingestion of hypnotics like zolpidem is shown to cause abnormal behaviors like sleep driving and sleep walking, according to a 2011 study published by the National Institutes of Health, which recommended that doctors prescribe sleep aids carefully but ultimately said it is up for a jury to decide in these kinds of cases.
"Sleep driving and daytime automatism must be considered potential serious adverse effects of zolpidem ingestion with high potential for fatality. Physicians should be aware of this possibility and can perhaps minimize the likelihood of occurrence by following certain prescribing principles," the study reads. "The degree to which zolpidem-associated sleep driving in an individual case is caused by poor compliance on the part of the patient, is a rare unavoidable side effect of the drug, or is the fault of physician and pharmacist instruction might only be determined by a jury in the court room."
Halsell commanded five space shuttle missions during his time at NASA, and retired from the agency in 2006 to go work in the private sector, according to The Guardian.
A judge has set Halsell’s reckless murder trial for Dec. 9 in Tuscaloosa, AL.com reports.
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