A judge on Wednesday rejected a plea deal that would have meant no jail time for the operator of a limousine company involved in a crash in upstate New York that killed 20 people in the city ahead of a 30th anniversary in 2018, drawing applause and tears from victims . relatives who packed the court.
Judge Peter Lynch, who did not preside over the case when the deal was reached a year ago in the Nauman Hussain case, 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 seemed to take lawyers and family members by surprise.
“I can’t even put into words how I feel. Totally unexpected. Thank God,” said Jill Richardson-Perez, the mother of Matthew Coons, victim of a limousine accident. “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.”
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 called on Hussain to plead guilty alone to the murder charges, which resulted 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 solution to a case that would have had an uncertain outcome had it been presented to a jury. 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.
The crash killed 17 family members and friends, including four sisters and three of their husbands, along with the driver and two bystanders outside a rural store. It was the deadliest transportation disaster in the United States in ten years.
Lee Kindlon, a lawyer for Hussain, has said his client tried to service the limo 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 and crashed into a small ravine.
The office of Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery has said that Hussain allowed passengers to ride in the limousine, despite receiving “multiple violation notices” from the state and being told that repairs were underway. 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.
On Wednesday, Lynch said Hussain’s actions show 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.
Lynch specifically mentioned 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 car after his arrest. Prosecutors have argued that Hussain removed the sticker from the limousine’s windshield so that he could hire it for more jobs.
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.
The next court date has been set for September 14. Hussain, who was on provisional probation, will be released on bail and subject to GPS monitoring.