Rashad Owens came to Austin in March 2014, and like dozens of other young rappers and hip-hop artists who flooded the South by Southwest Music Festival that year, he had hopes of someday making it big.
But less than an hour before his performance crew was to hit the stage at an East Austin club, officials say, Owens barreled a car through crowds of downtown revelers, killing four people and injuring more than 20 others in a crash that would make international headlines. As testimony in his capital murder trial starts Monday, Owens faces the toughest charge ever given to someone arrested in a suspected drunken driving collision in Austin.
The case is sure to draw attention from people all over the world, as the SXSW rampage rattled one of the most iconic music festivals in the country. For those who were hurt, those who lost loved ones and the countless others who have felt the ripple effects of that night, Owens’ long-awaited day in court might help make some sense of what happened.
But for the city, it could also be a time of reflection.
“Austin has a very strong party culture,” said Eric McDaniel, an associate professor in the government department at the University of Texas. “In many ways, I think what we are seeing is the negative consequences of that culture play out on the national stage.”
Owens, 23, pleaded not guilty in September to capital murder and four counts of felony murder. If he is convicted of all five charges, he faces an automatic sentence of life in prison for the first and a punishment of five to 99 years of incarceration on each of the other four offenses.
With bail set at $5.5 million, he has been in the Travis County Jail since the fatal crash on March 13, 2014.
That night is still vividly remembered by those who were there.
Austin police have said they first spotted Owens about 12:30 a.m., when was driving a gray Honda Civic west on 12th Street without headlights on and tried to turn south onto the Interstate 35 frontage road from the wrong lane. He almost crashed into a police cruiser, and the officer attempted to stop him, but Owens pulled into the parking lot of a Shell gas station, squeezed between the building and several cars at the gas pumps and sped the wrong way down Ninth Street, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.
At Red River Street, an officer at a barricade waved his arms and yelled for him to brake, the court records say. But the Honda turned north onto the crowded street closed to traffic, hitting and throwing music fans in the air.
After crossing 10th Street, which was open to vehicles, the car struck a bicycle and a couple on a moped and smashed a taxi with such force it was pushed across the intersection. The car then hit a van and did not come to a stop until reaching a parking lot on 11th Street.
Jamie West, 27, and Steven Craenmehr, 35, died at the scene. DeAndre Tatum, 18, and Sandy Le, 26, died in the days that followed.
In Austin, which spends more per capita on alcoholic drinks than any other Texas city, and where police statistics showed 55 percent of traffic deaths last year involved a driver impaired by drugs or alcohol, a number of drunken driving incidents have sparked public outrage in recent years.
But none has been bigger than the SXSW crash. It led to more police, cameras and barricades at the festival this year and to discussions about public safety and transportation policies. It also resulted in a pending lawsuit on behalf of eight victims against Owens, South by Southwest organizers and an Austin engineering company that helped prepare the festival’s traffic management plan.
As Owens’ case unfolds before District Judge Cliff Brown over the next three weeks, advocates against drunken driving are hoping it will serve as a call to action.
“Crashes where multiple people are killed bring a lot of attention, but these are tragedies we see and deal with every day,” said Debbie Weir, CEO of the national office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “In America, someone is killed in a drunken driving crash every 52 minutes. That is 28 Americans every day.”
To prove felony murder, Travis County prosecutors will have to show that Owens intended to evade police when he committed an act clearly dangerous to human life. That is not likely to be difficult for the state as police say the young man was caught running from the scene and was stunned with a Taser; he later told investigators he had been fleeing from the traffic stop because he feared being arrested on outstanding warrants.
But proving capital murder — probably the first time such a charge has been filed against anyone suspected in a drunken driving wreck in Austin — will be complicated. Prosecutors will have to convince jurors that Owens had the intention to harm others that night or knew his actions could be deadly. Such a burden of proof will require the state to delve into his mental condition and not merely show his behavior was reckless.
His lawyers have maintained that Owens never meant to hurt anyone, and in a twist, the fact that he submitted to a breath test that night could work in their favor. Court records show his blood alcohol level was 0.114 — over the legal limit of 0.08 — and although being drunk or high is not a legal defense that could lead to an acquittal, lawyers said, it could still allow his defense to center on his impaired faculties.
In jury selection last week, some candidates said they felt sympathy for him and had reservations about handing a defendant an automatic life sentence.
Owens, who was born in South Carolina, also faces 24 counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Those offenses will remain pending until after his trial.
Rapper from Killeen
Some legal experts said authorities overcharged Owens, using him as a scapegoat in a city that has failed to curb drinking and driving as it has fueled its reputation as an entertainment capital. On the night of the SXSW tragedy, Owens and his friends had packed bundles of T-shirts and CDs they had printed and recorded themselves to sell at their show at a hole-in-the-wall venue near 12th and Chicon streets in East Austin.
At the time, he was 21 and living in Killeen, a father of six flipping pizzas at Little Caesars. Online, he was producer KillingAllBeatz or K.A.B254, building a small audience through sound clips and homemade videos on sites such as SoundCloud and YouTube.
His family said he was born in a Christian home and had been taking online classes on music production. But public records show he had several misdemeanor arrests, including charges of a minor consuming alcohol and criminal trespass, in Fairbanks, Alaska. A Fairbanks complaint from October 2011 said Owens had admitted losing control of an SUV, hitting a pole at a Comfort Inn and leaving because he didn’t know he needed to call police.
Owens told officers “he had smoked a blunt about an hour prior to driving,” the record said.
Scott Bowman, an associate professor in the School of Criminal Justice at Texas State University, said there were also racial and social undertones likely to be working against Owens. To many in Austin, he said, Owens could be seen as another African-American man with a criminal record, an outsider to the city and a rapper far removed from the main styles of music showcased at SXSW.
“This case definitely will not come down to his race, but it, and his status as a social and geographical outsider, will definitely make it easier to make him the villain, as the Austin and SXSW community finds solidarity in his almost inevitable guilt and sentencing,” Bowman said.