A family who lost two young sisters after a reckless driver struck the vehicle they were in while driving 100 miles per hour in 2016 believes the plea deal that will allow the driver to spend just four years in prion is unjust.
James Halsell Jr., a 64-yeat-old astronaut from Alabama, pleaded guilty on Thursday, May 27, 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 retired United States Air Force officer and former NASA astronaut had consumed a bottle of wine and taken sleeping pills before getting behind the wheel, according to Tuscaloosa County District Attorney Hays Webb.
The girls’ mother, Latrice Parler, said his apology wasn’t sincere and criticized the sentence he received. “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.”
Halsell faced up to 20 years behind bars for each manslaughter charge and another 10 years for each assault charge, however, the judge sentenced him to spend four years in prison without a chance for early release, followed by 10 years of supervised release. If Halsell, who had been facing murder charges at trial before the plea deal, violates the terms of his probation he could be sent back to prison for another 16 years.
On June 6, 2016, Niomi and Jayla were traveling from their mother’s home in Texas with their father Parnell James and his fiancée to his home in Brent, Alabama, for the summer.
Around the same time, Halsell was on his way from Hunstville to pick up his son from West Monroe, Louisiana, in a rental car. He had consumed the alcohol and medication at a Motel 6 just hours prior.
James was traveling down a highway in Tuscaloosa County, just minutes away from home, when Halsell’s vehicle struck his car from behind at about 100 mph. The vehicle flipped, struck the median and the girls were ejected from the car. It would take another 100 yards before the vehicle would come to a stop. The Tuscaloosa News reports that Halsell was on probation for DUI conviction in California at the time of the accident.
“It is difficult to say that a 13-year-old did not die quickly enough,” Webb said, as he detailed the girls’ final moments and suffering to the court. James was knocked unconscious and his fiancée’s back was broken.
Webb called the situation a “tragedy” and opposed the lighter sentence for Halsell.
“There are clearly no winners here,” he said. “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.” At the time of their deaths, Jayla hoped to be a teacher while Niomi had dreams of becoming a police officer.
Halsell, who retired in 2006 after logging more than 1,250 hours in space, faced the family on Thursday and read a letter of apology taking responsibility for his actions.
The letter read in part, “I and I alone am responsible for the terrible accident that caused the deaths of Niomi James and Jayla Parler. These two beautiful and innocent girls were lost to you, their families and friends, and to this world that they would have blessed, because I committed an egregious lapse in awareness and judgement. The consequence of these mistakes cannot be undone nor can they be forgiven.”
He was taken into custody following the court appearance.