Former NASA astronaut pleads guilty in deadly car crash: Report

NASA astronaut James Halsell Jr.
Former NASA astronaut James Halsell Jr., seen here in a NASA photo taken before the STS-101 flight of the space shuttle Columbia, which lifted off in May 2000. Halsell commanded the mission. (Image credit: NASA)

A former NASA astronaut was sentenced to four years in prison followed by 10 years of probation in relation to a deadly car crash in 2016, according to media reports.

James Halsell Jr., 64, pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter and two counts of first-degree assault — lesser charges than his initial indictment on murder and assault, the New York Times reported May 27. 

Hays Webb, district attorney for the Sixth Judicial Circuit of Alabama, told reporters he agreed to honor Halsell's plea for lesser charges in part because the initial indictment carried a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, the Times added. 

"We offered the maximum, under manslaughter, and thought that was appropriate," Webb said, according to the Times. When asked if Halsell's past work history had any influence on the charges, Webb told reporters, "Absolutely not."

The June 6, 2016 crash in Tuscaloosa County, Alabama killed sisters Niomi James, 11, and Jayla Parler, 13, who were in a Ford Fiesta being driven by their father, Pernell James. The sisters were thrown from the Fiesta and killed, and two adults in the same car (including James' fiancée) were injured and taken to the hospital, the Associated Press reported shortly after the crash happened. 

After the hearing, the Times reported, James said the former astronaut should have been sentenced to "the max" because his daughters "didn't even get a chance to live."

Halsell's lawyer, James R. Sturdivant, said in a statement that a toxicology report "clearly showed that Ambien/Zolpidem sleep medication was the primary cause of the bizarre and tragic sequence of events that occurred that night." Halsell had also been on probation for a crash in California that happened while he was under the influence of alcohol, the Times said.

Halsell, who was promoted to colonel in the United States Air Force while at NASA, joined the agency in January 1990, the agency said in a 2002 biography of the former astronaut. He clocked more than 1,250 hours across five space missions: STS-65 (July 1994), STS-74 (November 1995), STS-83 (April 1997), STS-94 (July 1997) and STS-101 (May 2000). Halsell commanded his last three spaceflight crews.

Halsell served as NASA director of operations at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia in 1998, as the International Space Station program was beginning. Halsell's last mission, STS-101, also visited the ISS.

Following Halsell's conclusion of flight duties, he served as the manager of launch integration at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla, which was a role "responsible for all aspects of Space Shuttle preparation, launch execution, and return of the orbiter," NASA stated

Another of Halsell's prominent roles – before leaving the agency in 2006 to join ATK Launch Systems (now part of Northrop Grumman) – was leading the space shuttle return to flight team following the fatal Columbia accident of 2003 that killed seven astronauts.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: