A judge rejected a plea agreement that would have meant no prison time for the operator of a limousine company involved in a 2018 crash that killed 20 people in upstate New York, drawing applause and tears Wednesday from victims’ relatives who packed the court. State Supreme Court Justice Peter Lynch, who was not presiding over Nauman Hussain's case when the deal was reached a year ago, called the agreement "fundamentally flawed." The judge’s rejection caught lawyers and relatives off-guard. "I can’t even put into words how I feel. Totally unexpected. Thank God," said Jill Richardson-Perez, the mother of limo crash victim Matthew Coons. "I’m in a better place now."
Defense attorney Chad Seigel said they were "shocked" and that the judge's move was "unheard of." Lynch gave Hussain’s lawyers the choice of accepting a sentence of 1 1/3 to four years in prison or withdrawing his guilty plea. They chose the latter. Hussain, who operated Prestige Limousine, had been charged with 20 counts each of criminally negligent homicide and second-degree manslaughter in what was the deadliest US transportation disaster in a decade. The agreement had called for Hussain to plead guilty only to the homicide counts, resulting in five years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service. Lawyers for both sides said last year the plea agreement assured a resolution in a case that would have faced an uncertain outcome if presented to a jury.
Lynch noted that a state Department of Transportation out-of-service sticker had been placed on the limousine a month before the crash. State police recovered the sticker from Hussain’s car after his arrest, reports the AP. Prosecutors have argued that Hussain took the sticker off the limo’s windshield so that he could use it for more jobs. To the judge, Hussain’s actions showed he knew the risk of putting the limousine on the road the day of the crash, and a guilty plea to only criminally negligent homicide does not reflect that. Lynch called the deal "completely disingenuous and unacceptable to this court." (Read this fascinating piece on Hussain's father.)