Ex-astronaut pleads guilty in fatal DUI crash of two young girls; prison sentence starts immediately

Emily Enfinger
The Tuscaloosa News
Enlarged photos of 13-year-old Jayla Parler and 11-year-old Niomi James are held outside the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse by friends and family on Thursday, May 27, 2021. The girls were killed in a DUI crash of an ex-astronaut that occurred nearly five years before.

Friends and family of two young sisters, Jayla Latrice Parler and Niomi Deona James, filled about half of Tuscaloosa County Circuit Judge Allen May’s courtroom on Thursday. The other half was occupied by attorneys in dark suits, journalists and others who were waiting to hear the fate of a former U.S. astronaut who recently took responsibility for the girls’ deaths in a DUI crash that happened nearly five years before.

James Halsell Jr., now 64, was arrested in June 2016 and charged with murder in the deaths of the girls, one who was 13 years old and the other who was 11 years old. He pleaded not guilty to the offenses later that year and a trial was expected. However, this week Halsell took responsibility for the deadly crash in a plea agreement.

On Thursday, Halsell pleaded guilty to the lesser offense of manslaughter. Halsell also faced four counts of first-degree assault DUI, but two of those assault charges were dismissed because of the agreement. He pleaded guilty to the other two counts.

Latrice Parler, the mother of the two girls, held a look of determination tinged with sadness during the proceeding. She, along with family and other supporters, wanted no leniency for Halsell and sought a maximum sentence.

Pictured is a 2016 booking photo of James Halsell Jr.

As part of the agreement, Halsell pleaded guilty with the maximum sentence of 20 years under the manslaughter offense, said Tuscaloosa County District Attorney Hays Webb.

Halsell applied for probation, which prosecutors argued against, but he was given a split sentence; he will spend four years in prison, day-for-day, followed by a 10-year probation period. If he violates the terms of his probation, Halsell could be put back into prison for 16 years, Webb said.

On June 6, 2016, the two girls were traveling from their mother’s home in Texas with their father, Parnell James, and his then-fianceé, back to his home in Brent for summer vacation. A good bit of the drive was filled with chatter, singing and requests for Taylor Swift songs, according to what prosecutors said Thursday. It was sometime during their journey through Mississippi that the two girls became tired; they cuddled up and fell asleep underneath a blanket.

Halsell was also traveling at that time. According to previous reports, Halsell, who lived in Huntsville, was on his way to pick up his son in West Monroe, Louisiana, and was driving a rental car.

Prosecutors said on Thursday that Halsell had consumed alcohol and an unknown amount of medication at a Motel 6 just hours before the crash occurred. At that time, Halsell was on probation in connection with a drinking and driving conviction in California.

The girls’ father was driving their vehicle on U.S. Highway 82 in Tuscaloosa County when it was struck from behind by another vehicle traveling at a high speed, which sent the family’s vehicle tumbling through the median, prosecutors said.

The father was knocked unconscious and his fiancee’s back was broken in two spots.

“It is difficult to say that a 13-year-old did not die quickly enough,” Webb said, as he detailed the girls’ final moments and suffering to the court.

If not for the fatal crash, Jayla, the older of the two sisters, would have graduated from high school this year. The younger, Niomi, would be preparing to take her driver’s license exam in a few months. She would have turned 16 in August. At the time of their deaths, Jayla aspired to be a teacher and Niomi dreamt of becoming a police officer.

Both parents were able to express their feelings of loss to the court before sentencing. One of Halsell’s attorneys reflected on Halsell’s career and professional accomplishments.

Latrice Parler speaks with local media outlets following the sentencing of James Halsell Jr. on Thursday, May 27, 2021.

Halsell, a native of West Monroe, became an astronaut in 1991, according to his NASA biography, and has logged more than 1,250 hours in space. He retired in 2006 to accept a position with ATK Launch Systems.

Halsell was also given an opportunity to speak before sentencing. He requested to face the family, which the judge granted. In his statement, Halsell admitted responsibility for his actions, which resulted in the deaths of the girls, and apologized for the pain that he has caused.

Halsell was taken into custody following Thursday’s court appearance.

Parler said that she knows today’s event is not the end although it is a closed chapter.

“I’m going to keep the girls' name alive,” Parler said. I’m going to make sure the world knows exactly who James Halsell is and what he’s done. Because I listened to a lot of credentials he had, in there, but the main one was, for me, (he) murdered my daughters (and) took away our lives.”

Parler said she plans to work on a college fund foundation in remembrance of her daughters.

Emily Enfinger is a reporter for The Tuscaloosa News. Follow her on Twitter at @EmilyEnfinger. Email Emily at eenfinger@gannett.com.