ALBANY — Attorneys on Wednesday sparred over state Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch’s decision to toss out a previously negotiated plea agreement for Nauman Hussain, operator of a firm involved in the deadly Schoharie County limousine crash more than four years ago.
Hussain is appealing Lynch’s decision in a bid to have reinstated an agreed-upon plea deal that gave him 1,000 community service hours and five years of probation in lieu of prison time — a deal previously hammered out by Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery and Judge George Bartlett III.
Lynch took over the case in August following Bartlett III’s retirement from the bench and gave Hussain the choice of withdrawing his guilty plea or facing time in prison for his role in the deadly crash that made national headlines.
Chad Siegel, an attorney for Hussain, told state Supreme Court justices that his client had already completed 575 and a half hours of community service.
“I’ve never seen anything even close to this, not only in legal decisions, but in my history,” said Siegel during oral arguments Wednesday in the Third Department of the Appellate Division of state Supreme Court in Albany. “It’s astronomical.”
Siegel argued that Justice Lynch’s decision is a matter of “detrimental reliance,” the act of making a party feel obliged to act under a later-rescinded or false promise.
“I think the court can find that hundreds and hundreds of hours of community service that would not have otherwise been expended but for reliance upon a plea agreement constitutes ‘detrimental reliance,'” the attorney argued.
Part of the original plea agreement required the court to provide testimony for families seeking damages in civil lawsuits. Lynch told him at the time that the previous deal wouldn’t be used against him, but state Supreme Court Justice Sharon Aarons contended that Hussain appeared to have given up his defenses.
Hussain, first arrested in 2019, had previously pleaded guilty to 20 counts of criminal negligence. Twenty people — 17 passengers and a driver en route to Otsego County, in addition to two bystanders — were killed near the Apple Barrel Store in Schoharie after the limousine went out of control. The vehicle experienced catastrophic brake failure, according to investigators.
Discovered during the case was Hussain’s DNA on a removed out-of-service state Department of Transportation. In a 22-page dissenting opinion, Lynch stated that the plea agreement was “fundamentally flawed” and said the sticker matter was “consistent with being aware of and consciously disregarding the risk” of putting the Ford Excursion out on the road.
Siegel, in his representation of Hussain on Wednesday, said that the matter had already been ruled out in Bartlett’s decision and the matter didn’t constitute new evidence needed to lay out such a judgment. Angela Kelley, an attorney for Lynch, however, argued he was authorized to dissent on a matter that “was not based in truth and was disingenuous.”
Justice Aarons asked Kelley if Bartlett, the judge in the initial phase of the court proceedings, had all the information needed in front of him at the time of the initial proceedings. Kelley appeared to agree, but then contested the justice’s subsequent description of Lynch overruling another judge within the same jurisdiction.
“He is exercising his independent discretion which he’s required to do at the time of sentencing,” Kelley said.
Under Lynch’s decision, Hussain would face the original charges of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide come May 1.
And Hussain could still prevail, Kelley suggested.
“Essentially, the fact that he has now withdrawn his plea, he is entitled to his fair trial, at which he may very well be acquitted, making all of this entire process moot,” said Kelley.
The court didn’t rule at the conclusion of arguments Wednesday.
Tyler A. McNeil can be reached at 518-395-3047 or [email protected] Follow him on Facebook at Tyler A. McNeil, Daily Gazette or Twitter @TylerAMcNeil.
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