Justice will never be served for the 20 people who lost their lives Oct. 6, 2018, limousine crash in Schoharie County. The best anyone can hope for is that this never happens again.
It felt like justice swerved Thursday when the operator of the company that owned the vehicle at the center of this story avoided jail time despite pleading guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide. Given the fact that Nauman Hussain knew the limousine rented to 17 people celebrating a birthday was faulty and ordered off the road and repeatedly skirted the rules to keep it in operation, it’s hard to swallow that he won’t spend any time behind bars. He’s a criminal. It’s his fault those people are dead.
The problem is he’s not the only one responsible. Failures at every level created a domino effect that ended at the bottom of routes 30A and 30 outside the village of Schoharie.
The 17 family members and friends in the limo, including four sisters and three of their husbands, weren’t at fault. Neither were two bystanders in a parking lot at the bottom of the hill who were killed. That much we know.
It’s easy to point a finger at the driver, Scott Lisinicchia, who wasn’t licensed to operate that class of vehicle. He’s also dead, so he can’t defend himself.
The argument he had marijuana in his system really shouldn’t carry too much weight. If he was high while driving, of course it would be a factor, but weed stays in a person’s system for weeks. What if he smoked a joint the night before? It doesn’t mean he was stoned at the time of the crash.
Granted, Lisinicchia knew he was driving a vehicle he wasn’t supposed to. It’s also a headscratcher as to why they were in Schoharie to begin with. The passengers were headed from Amsterdam to Cooperstown. The easiest route there doesn’t go anywhere near the crash site.
But we don’t know if he fully realized how bad the brakes were on the limo, or the steps Hussain took to avoid having it legally road-worthy. It’s very possible Lisinicchia was simply handed the keys and the itinerary and sent on his way.
The main finger still points to Hussain. He sent an unqualified driver in an unregistered vehicle that turned into a literal death trap.
So why is this guy not in prison?
Part of the reason lies with two state agencies with the responsibility of making sure limousines and similar vehicles meet all safety standards and are properly inspected.
In a report issued Sept. 29, 2020, the National Traffic Safety Board faulted the New York Departments of Transportation and Motor Vehicles for failing to show proper oversight that allowed Hussain to dodge regulators.
State and federal lawmakers made a great show in calling for stricter regulations and oversight when it comes to limousines and the like. Hopefully new laws passed in the wake of the crash will help prevent similar deaths down the road.
But the problem here is laws and regulations already in place were not properly enforced. The new rules passed after the fact don’t address that two state agencies failed to show proper oversight to make sure current laws were being followed.
The DOT and DMV may have ordered the limousine off the road on multiple occasions, but federal regulators found they never followed up or enforced the orders. The state also failed to properly register the vehicle, which allowed Hussain to circumvent safety regulations and inspection requirements.
The problem wasn’t the lack of strong laws and regulations on the books. The problem was the state never made sure the ones on the books were followed.
That’s a human issue, not a bureaucratic one.
Then we look at the charges Hussain faced. While he pleaded guilty to 20 counts of criminally negligent homicide, he only faced 1 ⅓ to four years in state prison if convicted at trial.
Hussain was initially indicted on 20 counts of second-degree manslaughter, which carries more prison time. However, prosecutors would have to prove Hussain actively tried to send the crash victims to their deaths.
While Hussain deliberately put people at risk by putting them in that limousine, there is zero indication that he killed them on purpose. Being a shady businessman doesn’t automatically mean he’s a murderer.
Hussain isn’t facing zero consequences. He’s on two years’ interim probation, during which he has to complete 1,000 hours of community service. If he completes it, he’s on probation for another three years. He violates it, and he will likely do time.
Hussain also has to pay back the costs associated with the emergency response to the accident and faces a fine.
Hussain waived his right to invoke his Fifth Amendment privileges and can be called to testify in the numerous civil actions filed in the wake of the accident. He’s not totally off the hook, yet. He also cannot work in any transportation-related job, which means Hussain should never be in a position to cause another disaster like this.
One could accurately say justice was served according to the letter of the law.
One should also never expect the families and friends of the dead to accept it, because they’re right.
There is nothing just, or fair, about how this case turned out. Real justice never stood a chance.
Charlie Kraebel is a former Recorder managing editor and host of the “Charlie’s Angle” podcast, which is available on most streaming services. Contact Charlie at [email protected]