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Former NASA Astronaut Indicted for Double Murder

James Halsell

A Tuscaloosa County grand jury voted to indict a former NASA astronaut for murder. The panel charged James Halsell in an early morning traffic accident that killed two little girls on Highway eighty two back in June. APR Pat Duggins has more on the indictment and what’s next for the veteran Space Shuttle commander…

Members of the Tuscaloosa County grand jury charged James Halsell with two counts of reckless murder and two counts of 2nd degree assault. The murder counts are class A felonies punishable by ten years to life in prison. The assault charges are class C felonies carrying possible prison terms of one to ten years. Halsell was driving on Highway 82 at 3 a.m. on June 6th when he hit a Ford Fiesta driven by Pernell James.

When news accounts of Halsell’s arrest first came out, it looked like members of the press didn’t know what they had… TV news reports on the June 6th traffic crash looked like any other, at least at first. Alabama state troopers say Halsell was driving a rented car that crashed into the Ford Fiesta carrying eleven year old Niomi James and thirteen year old Jayla Parler. Both girls were killed and their father and a woman in the car were hospitalized. It was twenty four hours later that news outlets realized Halsell had a previous career…

The man charged in the deaths of Niomi James and Jayla Parler had flown to space five times aboard NASA’s Space Shuttle. This blastoff in 1995 was Halsell’s second mission in orbit The Shuttle docked with the Russian Space Station MIR. The astronauts would test construction methods later used to build the International Space Station.

During a pre-launch press conference, Halsell talked about the Russian customs he and his crewmates would observe aboard the Russian space station… “We’re also, going to carry some rather traditional gifts like flowers and candy, which is traditional to bring with you when you’re the guest of a Russian.” NASA’s missions to the MIR space station paved the way to the International Space station, particularly when it came to docking the winged spaceplane to the one hundred ton MIR. Halsell told reporters how the crew would rely on cameras to line up for the final approach… “In the final thirty feet or so, we do occasionally glance out, to give it a common sense check of the real world outside. But, most of our attention is on the camera views, cause that’s what’s going to be the truth for us, and that’s what we have to fly properly.”

Halsell would fly three more times on the Space Shuttle. On each of those missions he would be the Commander who piloted the spacecraft. Halsell later retired from NASA to work in the aerospace field. The Air Force Colonel was reportedly driving to Louisiana to pick up his son from college when the accident that killed Niomi James and Jayla Parler occured.

The murder allegations against are considered the worst scandal ever involving a NASA astronaut. There was only one incident in 2007 that came close… Two-time Astronaut Lisa Nowak faced a possible life prison term for attempted kidnapping and battery in what was described as a bizarre love triangle. Prosecutors claimed Nowak drove non-stop from Houston to Orlando to confront Colleen Shipman, a woman Nowak perceived as romantic rival. The incident was the butt of jokes on late night television. But, Shipman told the court it was no laughing matter when Nowak tried to kidnap her in the parking lot of Orlando International Airport…

Nowak struck a plea bargain in the case which ended her career at NASA and the U.S. Navy. As serious as this incident was for NASA, it pales in comparison to the indictment James Halsell faces. Murder charges and possible life prison terms aren’t the only legal problems against the former astronaut. A wrongful death lawsuit has already been filed on behalf of Niomi James and Jayla Parler.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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