A five-time space shuttle astronaut is now a convicted felon. James Halsell appeared before a Tuscaloosa judge and pleaded guilty to two counts of manslaughter in the 2016 traffic accident that killed two young girls. APR has been following the case from the start. It was a shock for observers of the space program and a long wait for justice for the families of the victim.
“For me and my family, we’re just tired,” Latrice Parler said. She is the mother of Jayla Parler and Niomi James. “It’s been five long years, and we need to rest a bit before we do it, we need to do to keep these babies alive. ”
Speak was in the same car and Jayla and Niomi when prosecutors say Halsell rammed his vehicle into theirs. One of the sisters died instantly. The other was pronounced dead at the local hospital. Latrice Parler read a prepared statement. In the hallway after the hearing, she spoke about the message behind it.
“I want the world to know that my daughters were amazing, beautiful, intelligent and strong little girls who could have been anything in this world if they had had the opportunity to grow up. But it was taken away from me and everyone in this world. And I miss them.
Talking says that either could even have been an astronaut, like the man who pleaded guilty to their deaths in June 2016. For 24 hours, local media apparently didn’t know what they had . The accident was reported in newspapers and on television news broadcasts. But it took a while before reporters learned that the prime suspect in this case had been to space five times.
“On the far right of the line here is Lt. Col. Jim Halsell,” Astronaut Commander Ken Cameron said at a press conference at the Kennedy Space Center in 1995. “He’s the pilot. of this mission… experienced… flew on STS-65 (a Shuttle Science Mission in 1994.)
For observers of the US space program, (whatever happened) stands in stark contrast to James Halsell’s career as the veteran space shuttle commander at NASA.
“Thank you very much,” Halsell told Cameron. “I am delighted to be here, as Ken said, we are happy with the weather today.”
This is one of the many times he answered journalists’ questions before a space mission. It was 1995, and Halsell was preparing to fly as space shuttle Atlantis co-pilot to Russian space station Mir. My last one-on-one interview with him was five years later. It was 2000 and I was passing a microphone to chat in an unusual place. Halsell and I were both in the cockpit of Atlantis.
“It’s smaller here than you might think,” I commented at the time.
“Yes,” Halsell replied. “When we have press conferences in space, we all get stuck in that corner right here and put the camera in the far corner. And since it’s a wide-view lens, it looks a lot more spacious than it is, as you can see from being here yourself.
The spacecraft is not in orbit. He sits in his maintenance hangar at Kennedy Space Center in Florida just before his final mission. Halsell is crouched in a spot in Atlantis’ cramped cockpit, and I’m sitting across from him. We each wear a white jumpsuit and cap, nicknamed bunny jumpsuits at NASA. I was one of a dozen space reporters invited to crawl inside Atlantis to interview Halsell. The star of the show was not the astronaut, but rather the shuttle dashboard
“The design of the shuttle was kind of frozen in the 1970s and 80s, and we kind of lived in that frozen situation, until now,” Halsell said.
Atlantis just received an expensive upgrade. The outdated mechanical buttons, dials and gauges were all gone. In their place was what is called a “glass cockpit”. It is a collection of small computer screens that feature the same instruments.
“It is really not possible, in my opinion, to fly the plane uphill while looking out the window. You have to focus on the information presented here, ”Halsell said, pointing to the dashboard. “This is where you will become aware of any problems and the corrective actions you need to take.”
All of that hasn’t changed what happened involving Halsell sixteen years later.
All of that hasn’t changed what happened involving Halsell sixteen years later. Prior to sentencing, the district attorney and the defense spoke about Halsell’s long career at NASA. DA Hays Webb says Halsell’s experience should have stopped drinking wine and taking prescription sleeping pills before getting behind the wheel in 2016. The defense explained how Halsell handled a space shuttle in an emergency. For Latrice Parler, it was Halsell’s way of describing his public service with children that was too difficult to take… “Especially when his defense said he had done so much with children, and he added my name. girl like she was still there. He said like Niomi, and Niomi is not there. And you tell me what he did and what he could still do. Halsell’s two counts of manslaughter were punishable by up to twenty years each. The two DUI assault charges could have added ten years each on top of that. Ultimately, the judge brought the astronaut what is called in legal terms a twenty-four. This means he will spend four years behind bars.
This story is part of an ongoing journalistic collaboration between Alabama Public Radio, WABE-FM in Atlanta, and WFSU-FM in Tallahassee. The three newsrooms join forces to report on issues of interest in the tri-state region.