Stretch limo operator in N.Y. crash appears in court, charged with negligent homicide

A limo service operator appeared in court this evening to face a charge of criminally negligent homicide after a weekend crash that left 20 people dead in upstate New York.

Judge enters plea of not guilty for Nauman Hussain

Nauman Hussain, left, leaves court with his attorney Lee Kindlon after being arraigned on a charge of criminally negligent homicide in a weekend limo crash in New York that killed 20 people. (Hans Pennink/Associated Press)

A limousine service operator has been charged with criminally negligent homicide in a crash that killed 20 people in upstate New York, while police continued investigating what caused the wreck and whether anyone else will face charges.

Nauman Hussain, 28, showed little emotion as he was arraigned Wednesday evening in an Albany-area court, and he ignored shouted questions from reporters as he left after posting $150,000 US bond. A judge had entered a not guilty plea for him.

Hussain's lawyer, Lee Kindlon, said earlier Wednesday that his client isn't guilty and accused police of rushing to judgment.

Hussain was arrested Wednesday during a traffic stop. The county district attorney said his car was packed with luggage at the time. (Hans Pennink/Associated Press)

Hussain's car was packed with luggage when he was stopped Wednesday on a highway near Albany, Schoharie County District Attorney Susan Mallery said.

Kindlon, said his client felt unsafe at home because he'd received threats.

Prestige Limousine, based in Gansevoort, N.Y., has come under intense scrutiny since Saturday's crash in Schoharie.

New York State troopers are shown at the limo crash scene on Oct. 8 in Schoharie. The operator of the limousine company was arrested and charged Wednesday. (Cindy Schultz/Reuters)

The driver apparently missed a stop sign and plowed into a parked SUV before coming to rest in a ditch. Two pedestrians and all 18 people in the Prestige super-stretch limo were killed. The passengers, including a newlywed couple and four sisters and their husbands, were on their way to a birthday party.

Hussain, 28, hired a driver who shouldn't have been behind the wheel of such a car, and the vehicle shouldn't have been on the road after state inspectors deemed it "unserviceable" last month, state police Superintendent George Beach said at a news conference.

"The sole responsibility for that motor vehicle being on the road on Saturday rests with Nauman Hussain," Beach said, though he noted that investigators continue looking into whether anyone else should be held accountable.

Kindlon said his client handled only marketing duties and phone calls, while his father ran the company, though police called Hussain its operator.

"My client is not guilty," Kindlon said. "The police jumped the gun in charging him with any crime."

Under New York law, criminally negligent homicide involves not perceiving a substantial, unjustifiable risk that leads to someone's death. It's punishable by up to four years in prison.

Previous brush with the law

Police charged Hussain with a single count involving all 20 victims. 

He has had a brush with law enforcement before. State police accused him and his brother of claiming each other's names after a 2014 traffic stop, which happened while the brother was driving without a valid licence.

Their father, Prestige Limousine owner Shahed Hussain, also has a history with law enforcement — as a government informant in terror plot investigations after the Sept. 11 attacks.

State police and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the cause of the crash, the nation's deadliest transportation accident since an air crash outside Buffalo in February 2009 killed 50 people.

Brake problem

The limo had been written up Sept. 4 for code violations, including a problem with the malfunction indicator system for the antilock brakes.

A sticker was placed on the vehicle declaring it "unserviceable," state Department of Transportation spokesperson Joseph Morrissey said.

Prestige's lawyer has said the safety issues were corrected. He said the driver might have misjudged his ability to stop at the bottom of a hill.

Morrissey said Kindlon's assertion that the code violations had been corrected and the vehicle cleared for service was "categorically false."

Even if the repairs were made, the limo would have needed to be reinspected and the owner would need approval again to transport passengers, a state transportation department spokesperson said.

Kindlon said he doesn't think those infractions contributed to the crash.

Driver had concerns, wife says 

The driver's widow said her husband had expressed concerns about the company's vehicles.

Kim Lisinicchia told CBS in an interview broadcast on Wednesday that there were several times she heard her husband, Scott Lisinicchia, state: "I'm not going to drive this, like this. You need to get me another car." But then "he trusted in what the limo company said, that the cars were all right."

"He was in excellent health. He was an excellent driver. For over 20-plus years he drove a tractor-trailer," Lisinicchia said.

"I feel for these victims," she said. "I am in no way trying to make it seem like it's about me or my husband. I just want my husband to be vindicated. I have to stand for him, 'cause nobody else will."

Family members and friends hold a candlelight vigil for the victims in Amsterdam, N.Y., on Monday. (Hans Pennink/Associated Press)

Services have been set for some of the victims, including 24-year-old Savannah Devonne Bursese, of Johnstown, the accident's youngest victim.

Her family is holding a private service Friday. In nearby Amsterdam, a funeral mass is scheduled Saturday for the four King sisters, three of their husbands and the brother of one of the husbands.