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A former Alabama astronaut pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault in the death of two young girls and will spend 4 years behind bars, but the victims’ family has argued that the plea deal “wasn’t justice.”
James Halsell Jr., 64, pleaded guilty Thursday to two counts of manslaughter and two counts of assault in the deaths of 11-year-old Niomi Deona James and 13-year-old Jayla Latrick Parler.
The young girls died in June of 2016 after Halsell’s car slammed into their vehicle going 100 miles per hour and ejected them from the car, according to WIAT.
The girls, who were picked up by their father from Texas earlier that day to spend summer vacation with him at his Alabama home, had been just miles from their final destination when the accident occurred around 2:50 a.m. along a remote rural highway, AL.com reports.
Before getting behind the wheel, Tuscaloosa County District Attorney Hays Webb said the former Space Shuttle commander had consumed a bottle of wine and had taken sleeping pills.
Although the 64-year-old could have faced up to 20 years behind bars for each manslaughter charge and another 10 years for each assault charge, the judge agreed to a plea that would require him to spend four years behind bars without the possibility of early release, according to the Associated Press.
He will also serve an additional 10 years of supervised release, and could be sent back to prison for another 16 years if he violates the conditions of his probation.
Webb had opposed the probation and lighter sentence in the case and called the situation “a tragedy.”
“There are clearly no winners here,” he said, according to AL.com. “It’s a horrible thing for the family. You have a man who has done very good things, who in this case did a very, very, very bad thing. It shows how thin the line is, and how fast and how far people can fall.”
Halsell’s attorney, Jim Sturdivant, told the news outlet that his client “has always acknowledged his responsibility for the tragic accident.”
“Jim has always wanted to express his sorrow to the families but was held back by me until today as I, as his lead lawyer, did my job of representing my client and trying to achieve a favorable outcome for my client,” he said.
Sturdivant—who also provided a confidential civil settlement to the family in 2017—apologized for his actions in court Thursday saying he “committed an egregious lapse in awareness and judgement,” the night of the fatal crash, WIAT reports.
But the girls’ mother, Latrice Parler, said the apology didn’t seem sincere, adding that the plea deal “wasn’t justice” for her slain daughters.
“I’m going to keep the girls' names alive and I’m going to make sure the world knows exactly who James Halsell is and what he’s done,” she told WIAT. “I’ve listened to a lot of credentials he’s had in there, but the main one was for me: murdered my daughters. Took away lives. We really wanted justice for this. It might have been lawful, but it wasn’t justice.”
Before the judge agreed to the sentence, Parler described the agonizing last moments she had shared with her girls.
“My daughters were amazing, beautiful, smart, strong little girls that could have been anything in this world if they had the opportunity to grow up, but that was taken from me and all of everyone else in this world,” she said, according to the AP.
The girls’ father Pernell James—who was injured in the crash along with another woman—told WIAT that during his final moments with his daughters they had been asking him to play Taylor Swift songs before they told him “I love you” and fell asleep in the backseat of the car.
“The one thing I do remember the most is them telling me they love me before they went to sleep,” he said.
Hassell was part of five Space Shuttle missions before retiring from NASA in 2006.
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