Former NASA astronaut charged with murder in Alabama traffic deaths

By Rich McKay
A Fly-Through of the International Space Station
A Fly-Through of the International Space Station

June 7 (Reuters) - A retired NASA astronaut was free on bail on Tuesday after being charged with two counts of murder in connection with a traffic crash that killed two girls near Tuscaloosa, Alabama this week.

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James Halsell Jr., who flew five space shuttle missions, was arrested early on Monday after a preliminary investigation showed alcohol and speed may have been factors in the crash, said senior state trooper Reginal King of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Niomi Deona James, 11, and Jayla Latrice Parler, 13, died after the 2015 Ford Fiesta they were riding in was hit by a 2015 Chrysler 300 driven by Halsell, King said in a statement, adding that neither of the girls was wearing a seat belt.

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According to Alabama news website AL.com, the girls were sisters who were traveling from Texas for summer vacation with their father when the crash occurred. Two other people in the Fiesta were injured, police said.

Halsell, 59, of Huntsville, Alabama, was arrested at the scene and later released from custody after posting $150,000 bond, jail records show.

It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer. Phone calls to his Huntsville home were not returned on Tuesday.

Halsell was a highly decorated astronaut whose work included helping to construct the International Space Station, according to NASA's website. He is also a retired U.S. Air Force colonel. (Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Steve Orlofsky)