SCHOHARIE, NY — A judge has rejected a plea deal that would have meant no jail time for the operator of a limousine company involved in a crash that killed 20 people in upstate New York, prompting applause and the tears Wednesday of relatives of the victims who filled the court.
Judge Peter Lynch, who was not presiding over the case when the deal was struck a year ago in Nauman Hussain’s case, called the deal “fundamentally flawed”.
It would have spared Hussain jail time, angering the families of those killed when a brake failure sent a limo full of birthday revelers hurtling down a hill in 2018.
The judge’s rejection seemed to catch lawyers and relatives off guard.
“I can’t even put into words how I feel. Totally unexpected. Thank goodness,” said Jill Richardson-Perez, the mother of Matthew Coons, who was involved in a limousine accident. “I’m in a better place now.”
Kevin Cushing, who lost his son Patrick in the accident, said the families “have hope for some justice in the future where we haven’t had justice in the past. “.
Hussain, who operated Prestige Limousine, had been charged with 20 counts each of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree manslaughter in what was the deadliest transportation disaster in the United States in a decade.
The agreement provided that Hussain would only plead guilty to the homicide counts, resulting in five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service. Lawyers for both sides said last year that the plea deal secured a resolution in a case that would have faced an uncertain outcome had it gone to a jury.
While the National Transportation Safety Board concluded the crash was likely caused by Prestige Limousine’s “flagrant disregard for safety” that resulted in brake failure, the board said ineffective state oversight was at play. contributed.
Lee Kindlon, an attorney for Hussain, said his client attempted to service the limo and relied on what he was told by state officials and a repair shop that inspected it.
Axel Steenburg rented the 2001 Ford Excursion limo for his wife Amy’s 30th birthday on October 6, 2018. The group, aged 24 to 34, included Axel’s brother, Amy’s three sisters and two of their husbands , as well as close friends.
En route to a brewery, the limo’s brakes failed on a downhill stretch of road in Schoharie, west of Albany. The vehicle drove through a stop sign at over 100 mph (160 km/h) and crashed into a small ravine.
The crash killed the limo driver, 17 passengers and two bystanders outside the store.
Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery’s office said Hussain allowed passengers to board the limo despite receiving “multiple notices of violation” from the state and being told the repairs were inadequate. State police said the vehicle should have been taken out of service due to brake issues identified during an inspection a month before the crash.
Lynch noted that an out-of-service sticker from the State Department of Transportation was affixed to the limo a month before the crash. State police recovered the sticker from Hussain’s car after his arrest. Prosecutors argued that Hussain removed the sticker from the limo’s windshield so he could rent it out for more jobs.
For the judge, Hussain’s actions showed he knew the risk of putting the limo on the road the day of the accident, and a guilty plea to criminally negligent homicide alone does not reflect that. Lynch called the deal “completely hypocritical and unacceptable to this court.”
According to New York law, second-degree manslaughter involves conduct that “creates or contributes to a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the death of another person will occur” – a risk the perpetrator knowingly ignores. Criminally negligent homicide, on the other hand, involves not perceiving such a risk, the judge noted.
Lynch gave Hussain’s attorneys the choice of accepting a sentence of 1 1/3 to four years in prison or withdrawing his guilty plea. They chose the latter.
The next court date has been set for September 14. Hussain, who was on temporary probation, will be released on bail and will be subject to GPS monitoring.