Judge nixes no-prison deal in 2018 limo crash that killed 20

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SCHOHARIE, NY — A judge dismissed 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 New York state. Wednesday’s turnaround sparked applause and tears from the victims’ relatives and plunged limousine company boss Nauman Hussain into legal uncertainty.

Peter Lynch, a state Supreme Court judge who did not preside over the case when the deal was reached in Hussain’s case a year ago, called the agreement “fundamentally flawed.”

It would have saved Hussain prison time and angered the families of those who died when the brakes stopped working, a long limousine full of birthday revelers that hurtled down a hill in 2018.

The judge’s rejection left lawyers and family members caught off guard. Relatives who testified shortly before about their grief and anger that no one was responsible for the fatal crash clapped and dabbed their eyes after the judge’s announcement.

“I can’t even put into words how I feel. Totally unexpected. Thank God,” said Jill Richardson-Perez, the mother of limousine accident victim Matthew Coons, as she exited court. “I’m in a better place now.”

Kevin Cushing, who lost his son Patrick in the crash, said the families have “hope for some justice in the future where we haven’t gotten justice in the past.”

Defense attorney Chad Seigel said they were “shocked” and the judge’s decision was “unheard of”.

Hussain, who operated the Prestige Limousine, had been charged with 20 counts of negligence and second-degree manslaughter in what was the deadliest U.S. transportation disaster in a decade.

The agreement had called for Hussain to plead guilty only to the murder charges, resulting in five years’ probation and 1,000 hours of community service. Lawyers for both sides said last year that the plea deal secured a solution to a case that would have had an uncertain outcome had it been presented to a jury.

Lynch noted that a State Department of Transportation field service sticker had been placed on the limousine a month before the crash. State police found the sticker from Hussain’s personal car after his arrest. Prosecutors have argued that Hussain removed the sticker from the limousine’s windshield so that he could use it for more jobs.

In court, Hussain’s actions showed that he knew the risk of putting the limo on the road the day of the crash, and a guilty plea for criminally negligent murder alone does not reflect that. Second-degree manslaughter is filed when a suspect is accused of being aware of the risk of death and ignoring it. Lynch called the deal “totally unfair and unacceptable to this court.”

Lynch gave Hussain’s lawyers the choice of accepting a prison sentence of 1 1/3 to four years or withdrawing his plea. They chose the latter.

Seigel said afterwards that the DOT sticker had “absolutely nothing to do with faulty brakes.”

“Together, we decided it would be in the best of everyone involved — not just our customer, but the members of the community — to put this case behind us. A little monkey wrench was thrown in there,” Seigel said. “So the judge forced us and we are ready for the trial.”

District Attorney Susan Mallery left the court without comment.

Hussain, who sat head down for much of the procedure, declined to comment afterwards.

Although the National Transportation Safety Board concluded the crash was likely caused by Prestige Limousine’s “great disregard for safety” that resulted in brake failure, the board said ineffective state oversight contributed.

Hussain’s lawyers say he tried to service the limousine and relied on what he was told by state officials and a repair shop that inspected the limousine.

Axel Steenburg rented the 2001 Ford Excursion limousine for wife Amy’s 30th birthday on October 6, 2018. The party group, ranging in age from 24 to 34, included Axel’s brother, Amy’s three sisters and two of their husbands, and close friends.

On the way to a brewery, the limousine’s brakes failed on a downhill stretch of road in Schoharie, west of Albany. The vehicle blew through a stop sign at over 100 mph (160 km/h) and crashed into a small ravine.

The crash killed the limousine driver, 17 passengers and two bystanders outside the store.

Mallery’s office has said Hussain allowed passengers to ride in the limousine despite receiving “multiple violation notices” from the state and being told the repairs were inadequate. State police said the vehicle should have been taken out of service due to braking problems identified during an inspection a month before the crash.

The next hearing date has been set for September 14. Hussain, who had completed a year of preliminary probation, will be released on bail and subject to GPS monitoring.

Lynch only revealed his decision after several family members spoke about their enduring pain and sense of loss. Sheila McGarvey told the court that her 30-year-old son Shane McGowan was just starting his life with his new wife, Erin McGowan, who was also driving the limousine.

“I call my son Shane’s name all the time,” McGarvey said, “but no one answers.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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