A judge on Wednesday rejected a plea deal that would mean no jail time for the operator of the limousine company involved in the crash in upstate New York. kill 20 people in town for the 30th anniversary celebrations in 2018, drew applause and tears from relatives of the victims who attended the trial.
Judge Peter Lynch, who is not presiding over the case when the deal was reached a year ago in the case of Nauman Hussain, calling the agreement “fundamentally flawed.”
It would have saved Hussain from prison time, angering the families of those killed when a brake failure sent a limousine full of revelers hurtling downhill in 2018.
The judge’s refusal seemed to have caught the lawyers and relatives off guard.
“I can’t even put into words how I feel. Totally unexpected. Thank God,” said Jill Richardson-Perez, mother of limousine victim Matthew Coons. “I’m in a better place now.”
Kevin Cushing, who lost his son Patrick in the crash, said the family “has hope for a little justice to be served in the future, where we haven’t had justice served in the past.”
Hussain, who operates Prestige Limousine, has been charged with 20 counts each of murder for criminal negligence and second-degree murder in what is the deadliest US transportation disaster in a decade. The agreement required Hussain to plead guilty only to the number of murders, which resulted in five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service.
Lawyers for both sides said last year the plea deal guaranteed resolution in cases that would face an uncertain outcome if presented to a jury. Temporary National Transportation Safety Board conclude the accident likely caused by the Prestige Limousine’s “terrible neglect of safety” that resulted in brake failure, the council said ineffective state oversight contributed.
The crash killed 17 family members and friends, including four sisters and their three husbands, along with the driver and two people outside a rural shop. It is deadliest transportation disaster in the United States within a decade.
Lee Kindlon, a lawyer for Hussain, said his client tried to keep the limousine and relied on what he was told by state officials and the repair shop that inspected it.
Axel Steenburg rented a 2001 Ford Excursion limousine for wife Amy’s 30th birthday on October 6, 2018. The party entourage, ranging in age from 24 to 34, included Axel’s brother, Amy’s three sisters and their two husbands, and friends close.
On the way to the brewery, the limousine’s brakes failed on a downhill road in Schoharie, west of Albany. The vehicle broke through a stop sign at over 100 mph and crashed into a small ravine.
Schoharie County Attorney’s Office Susan Mallery said Hussain allowed passengers to board the limousine despite having received “several notices of infringement” from the state and had been told the repairs were inadequate. State police said the vehicle should not have been used because of a brake problem identified in an inspection a month before the crash.
On Wednesday, Lynch said Hussain’s actions showed he knew the risks of placing a limousine on the road on the day of the accident, and his plea guilty to only murder by criminal negligence did not reflect that.
Lynch specifically mentioned that a non-functioning sticker from the state Department of Transportation had been put on the limousine a month before the crash. State police found a sticker from Hussain’s car after his arrest. Prosecutors argued that Hussain removed the sticker from the limousine’s windshield so he could hire it for more work.
Lynch gave Hussain’s lawyer the option of accepting a sentence of 1 1/3 to four years in prison or withdrawing his guilty plea. They chose the latter.
The next court date has been set for September 14. Hussain, who has been on temporary probation, will be out on bail and subject to GPS monitoring.