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The story of NASA's "other" high profile astronaut criminal case

University Press of Florida

The criminal case against a former NASA astronaut is still working its way through the courts in Tuscaloosa. Space Shuttle crewmember Jim Halsell stands charged with reckless murder in the deaths of two sisters. Jayla Parler and Niomi James died in the early morning traffic crash near Tuscaloosa in 2016. Halsell’s case is attracting attention, in part because of his history with NASA. But, this wasn’t the only time an astronaut faced this brand of spotlight.

"My thought was how could someone so accomplished spiral down where mere mortals live?” That’s Kimberly Moore. She’s a veteran space reporter based in Central Florida. She's not referring to James Halsell, but rather the subject of her new book.

“It’s the story of astronaut Lisa Nowak, and she is remembered for driving across the country to attack her romantic rival for the affections of another astronaut William Oefelein, and she may or may not have used diapers on this trip,” said Moore.

She recalls the moment she heard the TV special report from CBS anchor Martha Sagalski.

“In a very breathless voice, was like this astronaut got arrested for attacking a romantic rival, and possibly used diapers during her trip to Orlando, and I literally sat up, eyebrows raised, and thought ‘oh, my god, how did that happen,” she recalls.

Credit Wikipedia
SR71 Blackbird

Legal issues aren’t the only thing Lisa Nowak and Jim Halsell have in common. The other are resumes that could come off as impressive. Before joining NASA, Halsell flew the SR-71 Blackbird. That’s a spy plane that flies as fast as the Space Shuttle does inside Earth’s atmosphere. Moore says Nowak has a similar story.

“She’s a Naval Academy graduate. She graduated back in 1985, and that’s back when women…not a lot of women attended the Naval Academy,” Moore said. “It was just a couple of years after they started admitting them. She could fly thirty aircraft, she had about fifteen hundred hours, she was an accomplished Naval Officer.”

For the sake of transparency, Moore asked me to review the manuscript for her book and to write an endorsement for the dust cover. Moore covered Nowak’s initial release from jail and the trial that ensued. She says there’s was one spot where her legal team appeared to use her public image as an astronaut as part of their strategy. Moore says it was during her arraignment and it appeared to come down to one question.

“If your past doesn’t come to speak for you, when will it? Because prosecutors didn’t want her treated as an astronaut, they wanted her treated as a normal person,” said Moore. “And, this was when she was being arraigned for charged with attempted murder.”

Now, former astronaut James Halsell stands accused of reckless murder. Prosecutors may pursue intoxication as the cause of the accident. Halsell reportedly showed no alcohol in his system. But the District Attorney’s office is quoted as saying that’s because State Troopers had to get a search warrant for a blood test. The defense may counter that the former astronaut had a bad reaction to the sleep medication Ambien. APR invited the defense and prosecution to be interviewed for this story, but both declined. The case has yet to go to trial, and there’s no indication of whether or not Halsell’s background as an astronaut will come up.

“You know, I think, the answer is no,” says Judge John Carroll. He’s a professor at the Samford University lawsuit.

APR news asked Carroll to look into the James Halsell case and to offer his thoughts. Carroll doesn’t expect the defense to lean too heavily on their client’s image as an astronaut, unless one of two things happens.

“Where something like an astronaut background would help, is where the evidence could go either way,” said Carroll. “If it’s a slamdunk for acquittal or a slamduck for conviction, whether or not he’s an astronaut probably isn’t going to have an impact at all.”

If Halsell’s case goes to trial, it will occur during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Both of the young victims, Jayla Parler and Niomi James were African American. Carroll doesn’t think that will be an issue. But, he says there have been times when public opinion changed how things happen in court cases.

“I really do think that ten years ago Harvey Weinstein might not have gotten convicted,” Carroll believes. “But, I think people are now more aware of issues related to sexual harassment and those kinds of things, and so that was one example of where it made a difference.”

Credit NASA
Astronaut Lisa Nowak

Allegations of sexual misconduct by movie mogul Harvey Weinstein led to the so called Me Too movement.

Lisa Nowak’s trial ended in a plea bargain. She apologized to Air Force Captain Colleen Shipman for attacking her in the parking lot of Orlando International Airport. Moore sees at least some good coming out of the Nowak incident. She’s referring to how NASA checks on the psychological wellbeing of astronauts NASA used to give Shuttle crewmembers a onetime mental health check lasting three hours.  Moore says that’s changed.

“A psychological evaluation is now part of an astronaut’s annual physical,” Moore said. “For astronauts who go up on the International Space Station, and they stay a while, they have a once check in with a psychologist or a psychiatrist to make sure they’re okay.”

One difference for Jim Halsell is that the victim in Lisa Nowak’s attack was alive to hear an apology. Jayla Parler and Niomi James aren’t. Judge John Carroll.

“You have children involved in this case, which makes it significantly different compared to other cases. Because, we are sympathetic, and care deeply about, when children are involved,” he said.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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