A former NASA astronaut has pleaded guilty to manslaughter after killing two young sisters in a car crash nearly five years ago.
James Halsell Jr, an ex-space shuttle commander, was allegedly under the influence of drugs or alcohol when he drove a rental car into the back of another vehicle carrying 11-year-old Niomi Deona James and 13-year-old Jayla Latrick Parler, killing them both.
The 64-year-old was initially indicted on reckless murder charges but instead plead guilty to two manslaughter and two assault charges.
Family members of the two young girls, wearing shirts emblazoned with images of Niomi and Jayla, told reporters outside court they were upset by the outcome.
Halsell could have received 20 years in prison for each manslaughter charge and 10 years for each assault charge, but a judge agreed to probation and gave him four years without early release followed by 10 years on supervised release.
He could be sent back to prison for 16 years if he violates his probation.
“It wasn’t justice,” the girls’ mother, Latrice Parler, said. “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.”
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She added that she felt Halsell’s apology in court was not sincere.
District Attorney Hays Webb, who opposed the lighter sentence, said there were “no winners” in the case.
“It serves as a reminder that there’s a very fine line. You have someone who has been to space five times and, because of a bad decision on his part, wound up killing two girls,” he said.
Halsell was a veteran of five missions and had spent more than 1,250 hours in space before leaving NASA in 2006.
In 2016, he had been driving to Louisiana to pick up his son when he hit the vehicle driven by the girls’ father on a remote main road in 2016.
The father, Pernell James, and a woman were injured in the crash but recovered.
Mr James said Halsell should have received the maximum punishment rather than being given time to get his family and affairs in order, adding: “We didn’t get that.”
The case had been delayed for numerous reasons, including the coronavirus pandemic, the death of a defence lawyer’s father and a possible plea that fell through in 2019.