Ex-Astronaut Accepts Plea Deal for 2016 Crash that Killed 2 Girls
In 2016, a former NASA astronaut drove while under the influence on a rural Tuscaloosa County road and ultimately crashed his car into another and killing two young girls. Nearly five years later, he's finally taking a plea deal and bringing an end to a long-unresolved crime.
James Halsell Jr. accepted a plea deal on the morning of May 27, pleading guilty to two felony counts of manslaughter and two felony counts of assault DUI.
The maximum sentences for these four counts are 20 years for each of the manslaughter charges, then 10 years for each of the DUI charges. The judge authorized Halsell to serve each of the charges' sentences concurrently, allowing 20 years' worth of punishment to suffice for the crimes committed.
Halsell will now serve four years in prison, then serve 10 years on probation. If he carries out his punishment with good behavior, the remaining six years of his concurrent 20-year sentencing will be forgotten. If he makes any infractions during his probationary period, he will be returned to prison to serve 16 years.
The case was heard by Circuit Court Judge Allen May, who decided the sentence.
Halsell, who was 59 years old at the time of the incident, was driving eastbound down Highway 82 in a rented Chrysler 200 on June 6, 2016, reportedly on the way to West Monroe, Louisiana to pick up his son. He was traveling well above the speed limit, quickly approaching a Ford Fiesta that was headed eastbound from Texas at about 65 miles per hour.
Just before 3 a.m., Halsell crashed the Chrysler into the rear of the Fiesta near the 65-mile marker, flipping it and killing two sisters.
The victims were later identified as 11-year-old Niomi Deona James and 13-year-old Jayla Latrick Parler. Their guardians, driver Parnell James and passenger Latrivia Cutts, were taken to DCH Regional Medical Center to be treated for their injuries.
A passerby stopped after witnessing the crash, and when he offered to help remove the victims from their overturned car, Halsell allegedly attempted to steal the witness's truck and flee.
After the crash, Halsell claimed he did not remember any details of what happened. A deposition filed shortly after the incident read that "he appeared to be confused on where he was, where he was going and what time it was."
Troopers on the scene said Halsell was noticeably intoxicated, and they asked whether he was under the influence of any drugs or alcohol. He reportedly claimed he had drunk three glasses of wine at a motel before leaving to get on the road, but didn't remember leaving the hotel and didn't realize he was on Highway 82, not Interstate 20/59 like he thought.
The deposition stated that Halsell was so intoxicated that "he asked to see the victims' bodies." After searching his motel room, authorities recovered an empty wine bottle and "a 10 sleeping pill package that was empty," according to a statement from an ALEA Trooper.
Halsell was charged with two counts of reckless murder but was almost immediately released from jail on bond and has been out since, much to the disdain of the victims' family. After several delays only made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, it's taken nearly five years to actually bring Halsell to a courtroom.
Latrice Parler, the mother of Niomi and Jayla, created a Facebook page in 2019 for family and friends to voice their concerns, remember the girls and provide updates on the court proceedings.
Parler also spoke to 105.1 The Block's Dre Day about remembering her daughters and her feelings surrounding finally seeing Harsell's day in court. Read her story right here.
The Tuscaloosa Thread will provide more updates to this story as they become available. Stay connected right here.