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The operator of a limo crash that killed 20 people is on trial in Schoharie, NY

Almost five years later a limousine full of birthday cheer rolled down a hill and onto a side road in a rural New York valley. Killing 20 peopleThe operator of the car rental company is on trial.

Nauman Hussain, who drove Prestige Limousine, is charged with criminally negligent homicide and second-degree manslaughter for the Oct. 6, 2018 crash — one of the deadliest U.S. road accidents of the past two decades — in the western village of Schoharie. Albany.

Jury selection began Monday in Schoharie County Court for a trial expected to last at least four weeks.

Seventeen people were killed when a limo used for a birthday celebration crashed outside a country store, killing the driver and two bystanders.

Relatives of the victims have been on an emotional rollercoaster ever since. After pandemic-related delays in the criminal case, they were disappointed by the announcement of a plea deal in 2021 that would have spared Hussain’s prison time. A surprise twist came last fall when a judge rejected the deal, setting off a trial this week a few miles down the road from the crash site.

“All we can do is move forward and hope we get justice,” said Tom King, father of the four sisters killed in the crash. “It’s not going to stop for the families who lost their children. I mean, we lost four daughters and three sons-in-law in one shot. No matter how many tests they have, we can’t meet it.”

Victim Axel Steinberg rented a 2001 Ford Excursion limousine to celebrate the 30th birthday of his wife, Amy, who was King’s daughter.

The group headed to a brewery outside of Cooperstown, New York. The passengers ranged in age from 24 to 34 and included Axel Steinberg’s brother, Amy Steinberg’s three sisters and their two husbands and close friends.

The National Transportation Safety Board found evidence of brake failures that had long downhill stretches on the path to brake failure. The car is believed to have reached speeds of more than 100 mph (160 kph) when it blew through a stop sign at a T-intersection and struck a parked SUV and several trees before coming to rest in a stream.

Nauman Hussain, who ran the limousine company involved in a 2018 crash that killed 20 people, walks outside during a lunch break at a new trial Monday, May 1, 2023, in Schoharie, N.Y.

Nauman Hussain, who ran the limousine company involved in a 2018 crash that killed 20 people, walks outside during a lunch break at a new trial Monday, May 1, 2023, in Schoharie, N.Y.

Hans Pennink/AP

Prosecutors say Hussain failed to properly maintain the limo and is responsible for the death. Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery did not return a call for comment.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that the Prestige showed a “gross disregard for safety” and took pains to avoid stricter inspection rules intended to ensure that the stretch car had braking capacity and other requirements for carrying heavier loads than it was originally designed for.

The car was ordered out of service by state transportation officials a month before the crash following an inspection that was part of an investigation into Prestige operating without proper certification. Prosecutors argued Hussain removed an out-of-service sticker from the limo’s windshield.

But criminal cases are complicated. The NTSB also said ineffective state oversight allowed Prestige to evade safety regulations and inspection requirements.

There were also problems with the shop that Hussain used for repairs. State investigators say a Mavis Discount Tire store created false billing invoices to show the limo had brake work that wasn’t performed.

Hussain’s lawyers contend that he tried to maintain the limousine and relied on what state officials and repair shops told him.

“Every day we talk about Nauman, the real criminals get away with it. We’re going to prosecute not just to protect an innocent man, but to hold true accountability for those who could have prevented this tragedy,” Lee Kindlon, an attorney for Hussain, said in an email. .

In an email, a Mavis spokesman expressed sympathy for the victims and their families, called its billing policies “honest, fair and accurate” and said the company “bears no legal responsibility for this tragedy.”

The plea deal announced in 2021 called for Hussain to plead guilty only to criminally negligent homicide. Under the deal, he will be placed on probation for five years and must perform 1,000 hours of community service, but will not serve any jail time.

“We were absolutely devastated by it,” said Kevin Cushing, who lost his son Patrick Cushing in the wreckage.

An unexpected twist came a year later when a judge rejected the deal as “fundamentally flawed.” Justice Peter Lynch, who was not presiding over the case when the deal was reached, argued that Hussain’s actions before the accident showed he knew the risk of leaving the limousine on the road and that the guilty plea to the criminally negligent homicide charge did not reflect that. .

Hussain then withdrew his plea, paving the way for a trial that is expected to last about six weeks.

Cushing is among the relatives who plan to show up for the trial and are set to testify. He thinks he owes it to his son Patrick, his son’s girlfriend Amanda Hales and the other people in the limousine that fall day.

“It’s not going to be easy,” Cushing said. “Many things in life are not easy, but some things you have to do.”

The Prestige was owned at the time of the crash by Hussain’s father, Shahed Hussain, a former paid FBI informant known for his role in several controversial domestic terrorism investigations before returning to his native Pakistan. He was not charged.

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