SCHOHARIE COUNTY -- Attorneys for the families of victims in the deadly 2018 Schoharie limousine crash on Friday denounced the possibility of a plea bargain in the case.
While there is no plea agreement, attorneys for the victims' families have been told there is a pre-plea investigation underway by the Schoharie County Probation Department -- a step toward a plea deal being struck.
In a plea deal, a defendant typically pleads guilty to part of an indictment or two on a reduced charge in exchange for a reduced sentence, allowing both sides to avoid the uncertainty and expense of a trial.
The crash, which occurred on Oct. 6, 2018, at the intersection of state routes 30 and 30A, killed the limo driver, all 17 passengers, and two pedestrians in the parking lot of the Apple Barrel Cafe and Country Store, in the deadliest transportation accident in the U.S. in a decade.
The operator of the limo company, Nauman Hussain, 30, faces 20 counts each of second-degree manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in connection with the case, and could face a maximum of 15 years in prison.
While a trial in Schoharie County Court was slated to start May 4, it fell into limbo when the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down the state court system in mid-March. It has since partially re-opened, but there are no plans to resume in-person jury trials.
The possibility of a plea bargain in the case was first reported Friday by WMTW in Portland, Maine, near where the mother of one victim, Michael Ukaj, lives. "Michael deserves justice for everything that has happened," Mary Ashton told the station.
Shortly after that broadcast report, attorneys for the families of seven victims held a press conference Friday afternoon in Guilderland to denounce the possibility that Hussain would strike a deal without their involvement.
"They feel like they're not having a voice, even after how this has affected all their lives," said Cynthia LaFave, who represents the estates of Adam and Abigail King Jackson of Amsterdam, but who spoke on behalf of several other families.
She said the families' intention wasn't to criticize Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery, despite their frustration.
While she acknowledged the decision on whether a plea agreement is reached isn't up to the families, LaFave said they really want a requirement in any agreement that Hussain will fully articulate the truth of what happened, and the events that led up to the crash. "Why can't the elocution be an acceptance of responsibility to the extent that we really learn the truth?" LaFave asked, using the legal term for a plea statement to a judge.
Hussain is free on $450,000 bail, though he is prohibited from leaving the state.
A criminal trial would come with uncertainties about the outcome.
The prosecution's argument is that the stretched 2001 Ford Excursion had suffered from multiple mechanical issues that were either unaddressed or only partially addressed, and the crash happened when brakes failed as the limousine was coming down a long hill, and ran through the stop sign at state Route 30A.
Defense attorneys are arguing -- and are expected to argue to a jury if there is a trial -- that the most recent state Department of Transportation vehicle inspection in September did not cite brake issues, and Hussain relied in good faith on the repair work done on the limo by the Mavis Discount Tire store in Saratoga Springs. Mavis has repeatedly denied it has any responsibility for the crash.
According to a notes from a recent conference call involving Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery obtained by WMTW, a pre-plea investigation into Hussain's background is underway. That will include soliciting victim impact statements from the families of those killed -- young adults on their way from the Amsterdam area to a birthday celebration in Cooperstown.
"The more time that passes, the criminal case does not get better," Mallery said, according to the notes.
Mallery also said she thinks it is important to get a homicide conviction of some type "to deter similar actions by others," according to the notes.
Most of the familes have also filed lawsuits for civil damages against either Hussain or Mavis, and Mallery noted that information and documents that could relate to those cases won't be released until after the criminal case is over.