TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WIAT) — Former astronaut James Halsell has pleaded guilty to the deaths of two sisters four years after he was involved in a car wreck where they were killed along Hwy. 82 in Tuscaloosa County.
James Halsell, 64, pleaded guilty to to manslaughter and assault driving under the influence at the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse Thursday in the deaths of Niomi James, 11, and Jayla Parler, 13. He subsequently received a split sentence where he would serve four years in prison and 10 years years on probation.
On June 6, 2016, the car Halsell was driving struck the car with James and Parler were passengers in, causing both of them to be ejected from the car. James was pronounced dead at the scene and Parler dying after being taken to a nearby hospital. According to state troopers, neither girl was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash.
During the sentencing hearing, Tuscaloosa County District Attorney Hays Webb said Halsell was driving 100 mph on Highway 82-South after drinking a bottle of wine and taking sleeping pills.
Webb said the collision was so hard, it sent the car Parler and James was in over the median, flipping it, before coming to a rest roughly 100 yards away. The family was just minutes away from home after driving all night.
When Halsell was arrested later that month, he was charged with reckless murder. Halsell was released from jail after posting $150,000 bond. Later that year, a grand jury indicted him on reckless murder and first-degree assault charges.
Police believed alcohol and speed were factors, but Halsell’s attorneys argued that sleeping medication was to blame.
At the time of the crash, Halsell was on probation for a previous driving under the influence arrest.
The girls’ mother, Latrice Parler said to see Halsell be given four years when his charges warranted a maximum of 60 years behind bars is not justice.
“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,” said Letrice Parler. “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.”
The girls’ father, Pernell James recounted his last moments with his daughters. They kept asking to play Taylor Swift songs. And gave him one last, ‘I love you’ before dozing off in the backseat.
“The one thing I do remember the most is them telling me they love me before they went to sleep,” said Pernell James. “They said, ‘dad, we’re tired’ and they laid down. That’s the last thing they said to me.”
The judge overseeing the case is Allen May. Webb said the sentencing given is in line with May’s reputation.
“[Halsell] heard me say ‘he knew better,’ said Webb. “When somebody does know better, and still chooses to make bad decisions, those bad decisions hurt families and kill people, It’s a tragedy all around.”
During the hearing, Halsell read a letter of apology to the families of James and Parler. Before reading his statement, he asked the judge if he could face the families. A portion of his statement is pictured below.
A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Halsell took part in five Space Shuttle missions and worked with NASA in different capacities before retiring in 2006.