SCHOHARIE — Opening statements will take place Monday in the long awaited trial against Nauman Hussain, the limousine operator accused of failing to maintain the vehicle involved in the Oct. 6, 2018 crash that killed 20.
The weeklong jury selection process for the trial wrapped up late Friday following days of questioning that led to nearly 200 individuals being dismissed. A total of nine women and three men sit on the jury. Four alternates were also selected during the process.
“This is clearly a trial that may take some time,” said State Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch, who is presiding over the case.
Hussain, 33, was the operator of Prestige Limousine & Chauffeur Service in Wilton, the company that rented the stretched 2001 Ford Excursion SUV involved in the crash to a group of 17 friends from the Amsterdam area to attend a birthday celebration in Cooperstown.
The company is owned by Hussain’s father, Shahed Hussain, who was in Pakistan at the time of the crash and has never returned to the U.S. or been charged in connection to the incident.
Shortly after group boarded, the limo crashed into a ravine near the Apple Barrel Country Store a short time later at speeds in excess of 100 mph after its brakes failed while descending a steep hill on state Route 30, killing the passengers, the limo’s driver and two bystanders. The wreck remains the deadliest the country has seen in more than a decade.
Hussain is accused of failing to maintain the limo and circumventing state vehicle registration and inspection laws that could have prevented the crash and knowingly putting an unsafe vehicle back on the road despite an out-of-service order placed on the vehicle by the state’s Department of Transportation.
He faces 20 counts each of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide for his alleged role in the crash — one count of each charge for every person killed in the wreck. If convicted of the top manslaughter counts, he faces up to 25 years in prison.
Open arguments are scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m. Monday at the Schoharie County courthouse.
Lee Kindlon, a lawyer for Hussain, told reporters outside the courthouse Friday that he was confident a fair and impartial jury had been selected, adding that the selection process was the longest he had ever been a part of.
A total of 1,500 summons were sent out for the case. Many of the prospective jurors were dismissed after revealing they had close connections to one or more of the 136 potential witnesses that could be called on during that trial that is expected to last between four and six weeks.
Others said they would be unable to consider the facts without bias after consuming media coverage in the more than four years since the crash.
“They said they could be fair and impartial,” Kindlon said of the jury. “Part of the system is that we take them at their word and I know they are going to work hard because they were certainly working hard in there to answer all our questions.”
Kindlon drilled prospective jurors about whether they would be able to render a not guilty verdict if the prosecutors were unable to prove their case and whether they would be able to set aside any sympathy they might have. He told the potential jurors that the courtroom gallery would likely be filled with family of those killed in the crash and reminded them that many in the community have been impacted after responding to the scene.
Kindlon also questioned those summoned about their thoughts on using professional services and questioned them on who would be responsible for an incident if it was determined that a regulation was not followed but the cause of the incident was determined to be something else entirely.
“Is it just because there is a violation of a regulation and something bad happens does it mean there’s a correlation?” he asked the panel.
The questioning is a strong indication that Hussain’s defense team — which also includes Joseph Tacopina and Chad Seigel — plans to shift the blame to Mavis Discount Tire, the auto repair shop that allegedly failed to properly service the vehicle in the weeks leading up to the crash, and placed a state DMV inspection sticker on the vehicle despite not having the authority to inspect the vehicle under state regulations.
The Excursion SUV — which was stretched 144 inches and weighed 7 tons — had seating capacity for 17, which, under state law, would have required the vehicle to undergo regular inspections by the state’s DOT, not the inspection process DMV requires for regular automobiles. Mavis faces a number of civil lawsuits filed by the families of those killed in the crash.
Tacopina and Seigel were not present during jury selection but are expected to join the defense in the coming days. Tacopina is currently representing Donald Trump in a civil case in which the former president is accused of raping E. Jean Carroll in the 1990s.
Susan Mallery, the Schoharie County District Attorney who is prosecuting the case, is expected to argue that Hussain failed to maintain the vehicle and knowingly sidestepped state regulations that could have prevented the crash.
Special Prosecutor Fred Rench, who was appointed to assist Mallery during the proceedings, questioned prospective jurors about the importance of regulations and whether they would hold any biases against police and DOT and mechanics from Mavis Discount Tire that will be called on to testify.
“The crimes charged are crimes of omission, not commission,” he said.
Mallery on Friday said the dayslong jury selection process is reflective of how tight knit the residents that live in rural Schoharie County are, noting that numerous prospective jurors were dismissed because they knew the first responders.
Still, she said, the selection process resulted in the desired outcome.
“I think we have a fair and impartial jury,” Mallery said.
The trial comes just months after Hussain was set to plead guilty to the criminally negligent homicide counts in a deal that would have seen him serve probation and community service instead of jail time.
But the plea bargain was thrown out at a sentence hearing by Lynch, who said the agreement was “completely disingenuous and unacceptable to this court” and instead offered Hussain the option of accepting a prison term of 1 ⅓ to 4 years or face trial. Lynch began overseeing the case after Justice George Bartlett III, who approved the plea arrangement, retired prior to the sentencing hearing.
Lynch focused much of reasoning for rejecting the terms of the agreement on an “out of service” sticker the state’s DOT placed on the vehicle after it failed an on-the-spot inspection in the weeks leading up to the crash. Hussain allegedly removed the sticker, which was later recovered inside his personal vehicle at the time of his arrest just days after the crash.
The crash has led to a number of new regulations for the limousine industry on the state and federal levels, but has also raised questions about whether the state could have done more to keep the troubled vehicle — which had a history of failed inspections leading up to the wreck — of the roadway.
A report issued by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board in 2020 determined that the “probable cause” of the crash was Prestige’s “egregious disregard for safety” and poor maintenance of the aging vehicle, but also blamed the state’s DOT and DMV for not taking the vehicle off the road despite having the authority to do so.
Contact reporter Chad Arnold at: [email protected] or by calling 518-395-3120.