Family members of the 20 victims killed in the Schoharie limo crash in 2018 are welcoming a surprising development in the case: the operator of the limousine company is headed for trial after a judge on Wednesday rejected a plea agreement reached last year that would have spared him jail time.
Nauman Hussain pleaded guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide a year ago.
As part of a plea agreement, Hussain would serve 1,000 hours of community service and receive five years’ probation and no jail time.
The deal was approved by now-retired Judge George Bartlett and infuriated the families of the victims. But they were in for another surprise when on Wednesday Judge Peter Lynch said in Schoharie County he would not agree to the terms. Lynch took over the case after Bartlett retired.
Kevin Cushing lost his son Patrick in the crash. When the rejection of the deal came, he said the families applauded.
“It was almost like time slowed down. It was so surreal because we literally were in a room all together before the court proceedings. And it was somber, it was quiet, there was some anger, there was frustration. So when we finally got into court, we just had such low expectations, that when we found out there was certainly going to be a huge announcement by the judge, it was…I don’t want to say joyous, because it’s not the right word considering the situation in court, but we were very, very happily relieved,” said Cushing.
Judge Lynch recommended jail time. Hussain’s lawyers withdrew the guilty plea, setting the stage for a trial. The news was welcomed by those who knew the victims and their families, including Capital Region Congressman Paul Tonko.
The Democrat is from Amsterdam, like many of the victims, and worked with their families to craft new limo safety laws.
“Some of the families, we have been working with them, I know them personally because it impacted my hometown so heavily. But this is about justice,” said Tonko.
Tonko told reporters Wednesday he is still waiting for a response from the FBI about his calls for more information about Hussain’s father Shahed, reportedly an FBI informant, and the family’s ties to the agency.
Also on Wednesday, Capital Region State Senator Jim Tedisco, a Republican, called for an extension on the October 1st deadline facing the New York State Stretch Limousine Passenger Safety Task Force as it prepares a final report. The extension is needed, according to Tedisco, so the Task Force can “thoroughly” review findings by the state Inspector General, who is investigating the 2018 crash.
With the criminal case possibly headed to trial, it may delay a number of civil proceedings. That’s according to James Frament, an attorney representing one of the impacted families.
“It probably will delay the case because the fact that there may be a criminal trial now means there will be legal ramifications with respect to Hussain testifying in the civil case. So it may delay the civil case, but my clients are more than willing to take that trade if it means that justice will be done in this case,” said Frament.
Derrick Hogan, a managing partner with law firm Tully Rinckey, is not involved in the case, but said the fact that a judge rejected a plea agreement reached between two parties – in this case Hussain’s attorneys and Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery – is not that unusual.
“What’s a little bit uncommon here is there was a plea agreement under a different judge – Judge Bartlett – and that the defendant had a term of interim probation and ultimately, in that time before final sentencing, obviously Judge Bartlett retired and there was a new judge appointed. So that, in a sense, it is a little odd that the previous judge had indicated that he would accept it and now once the new judge was put in there due to Judge Bartlett’s retirement, that he ultimately rejected the plea,” said Hogan.