2:33 PM PDT, June 7, 2021
NASA astronaut James Halsell was a national hero, piloting and commanding five space shuttle missions during his career.
But on the night of a deadly crash in 2016, prosecutors say Halsell drank a bottle of wine, took sleeping pills and drove at 100 mph, when he smashed into the rear of a car, killing 11-year-old Niomi James and 13-year-old Jayla Parler.
Their dad, Pernell James, was behind the wheel.
“The last thing I heard was ‘I love you,’” James told Inside Edition. “And that’s when we flipped. We flipped across the median and went all the way into the other lane.”
Mom Latrice Parler says the girls were amazing daughters.
“It hurts so much. I can’t stop thinking about all of what I had, all of what I don’t have with them,” Parler said.
“My oldest daughter, she wanted to be the best that she could be. She was loving, she was caring. Her sister Naomi, she was very smart, intelligent. She wanted to be a police officer when she grew up,” Parler continued.
At the time of the crash, Halsell was on probation for a previous DUI crash. After the deaths of Niomi and Jayla, a grand jury indicted him on reckless murder and DUI charges. But when he walked into the Tuscaloosa, Alabama, courthouse, he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter and assault while driving under the influence.
He initially faced up to 60 years behind bars, but was sentenced to just 4 years in prison, along with 10 years of probation.
The girls’ mom was stunned. “It wasn’t justice,” she told Inside Edition, adding that she “definitely” believed the astronaut received special treatment.
“They kept talking about how he’s this great American hero in court. They talked about all of his accomplishments and things, but the one thing they kept leaving out was murder,” James said.
The district attorney says he does not believe Halsell received special treatment. Prosecutors say if he violates his probation, he could be sentenced to an additional 16 years behind bars.