After a little more than three hours of deliberations, a Travis County jury Friday found Rashad Owens guilty of capital murder, handing him an automatic sentence of life in prison in the deadly South by Southwest Music Festival crash that shook the city.
As those he hurt addressed him in their final statements of impact, Owens, 23, broke into tears.
Pauline Le remembered her sister, Sandy Le, as a beautiful and spirited girl. “I hope your life ends in the confinement of cement walls,” she said. “I hope you sit there and remember everything you did to Sandy.”
Shon Cook, the mother of Jamie West, shed tears as she told Owens she was angry for losing her baby. “I pray for your mother, and your grandmother, and your family,” Cook yelled, banging her hand on the witness stand. “They lost you, too.”
Over four days this week, jurors heard vivid recollections from witnesses who saw him speed a Honda Civic into throngs of people, as bodies hit its windshield and were thrown high into the air. They watched chilling footage of Owens, a father of six and once an aspiring rapper living in Killeen, go through stages of shock in the hours that came later.
And some jurors shed tears with the loved ones of the four people whose lives he took.
But as the jury weighed Owens’ fate, they had to set emotions aside and consider two main elements to convict him on the highest offense ever dealt to anyone arrested in a fatal drunken driving crash in Austin: Did he intentionally mean to cause others harm or did he know his actions could be lethal?
During Owens’ weeklong trial, prosecutors sought to show Owens knew he could kill someone when he barreled through music fans as he fled police during the SXSW festival in March 2014. But defense lawyers attempted to shift the focus to what they said was Owens’ lack of bad intentions, saying he had been confused, scared and drunk when he ran from an officer, without time to realize the gravity of his decisions.
Owens had also faced up to four counts of felony murder, each carrying a punishment of five to 99 years in prison.
Witnesses have said an Austin police officer first spotted Owens about 12:30 a.m. on March 13, 2014, when he was driving west on 12th Street without headlights on and tried to turn south onto the Interstate 35 frontage road from the wrong lane. Dash camera video showed that he then fled, squeezing his way past parked cars at a gas station and speeding the wrong way down Ninth Street before swerving onto Red River Street.
There, he drove around a barricade that closed the road to vehicles, hitting people and then crashing into other vehicles seconds later. West, 27, and Steven Craenmehr, 35, died at the scene. Le, 26, and DeAndre Tatum, 18, died in the days that followed.
‘Like a bomb’
Witnesses painted a chaotic and harrowing scene. One man said it “almost looked like a bomb had gone off,” while another described it as though a tornado had blown through the street.
Some said they saw hundreds of people running and screaming as the car sped into the crowds. Others saw clouds of dust, bodies hitting the windshield of the car or flying nearly as high as the telephone lines. Not once did the car stop or slow down, witnesses said.
SXSW workers said the street had been busy as they tried to organize a line of people outside the Mohawk. The music venue was at capacity, but as the performer Tyler, the Creator tweeted that more fans would be allowed inside, more people flocked to the area.
Owens was said to have been traveling at his fastest — 55 mph — near the intersection of East 10th and Red River streets, before he struck Tatum and Le. In a span of five seconds, according to analysis of a data recorder in the Honda, he went from about 40 mph to 53 mph, the speed he likely was traveling when he struck and killed Craenmehr, who had been on a bicycle, and West, who had been riding with her husband on a motorcycle.
His flight from police lasted less than a minute. But defense lawyers grilled Austin police officer Lewis Traylor on his decision to chase Owens. In response to their questions, Traylor said he followed Owens believing the driver would stop, and hadn’t initiated an official police pursuit or turned on his sirens until after Owens started striking people.
Through cross-examination of officers, defense lawyers gave jurors a reason why Owens might have been so eager to flee police. In dash camera video, as he sat in a police cruiser after his arrest, Owens asked officer Robert Mitchell, “You are not going to kill me, are you?”
Mitchell responded with an incredulous, “No!” But over prosecutors’ objections, attorney Rick Jones asked Mitchell, “You think it is unreasonable for a young black man to think that an officer might kill him?”
“You are asking me to say what he thought?” Mitchell first responded, later telling Jones he couldn’t know what Owens had been thinking. Jones pressed on, citing recent news of young, unarmed men killed at the hands of officers and asking Mitchell to answer whether it was unreasonable for any young black man to fear being killed by police.
“You’re not a young black man, you’re not scared of police?” Jones said.
“I am police, so I shouldn’t be,” Mitchell said.
To prove capital murder, prosecutors had to persuade jurors that Owens had the intention to harm others that night or knew his actions could be deadly.
On dash camera footage played in court Wednesday, Owens sobbed and wailed, recited prayers and refused to cooperate with field sobriety tests. “Sir, all I care about is me not killing nobody,” he cried at one point from the back of a police cruiser. “I didn’t mean to hurt nobody. I was just scared.”
About an hour after the crash, Owens’ blood-alcohol content was measured at 0.114 in a breath test, higher than the legal limit of .08. Owens also was found to have a small trace of marijuana in his blood.
In closing arguments Friday, prosecutor Amy Meredith told jurors to not talk about Owens’ intent but to focus on how he was aware his conduct could be deadly. She said Owens had the wherewithal to turn on his blinker, maneuver his way around the gas station, and, once on Red River, swerved around a parked car in his way, Meredith said.
“There is no other answer than that the defendant knew what he was doing — and he didn’t care,” Meredith said. “He didn’t care who was in his way. He was not going to be stopped. He was not going to go to jail.”
Jones and defense lawyer Russell Hunt said that Owens had been unfamiliar with the city and likely didn’t know Red River had been closed to traffic. They said he sped down the street without headlights for five seconds, with little time to react to pedestrians on the street.
“We don’t know at what point Mr. Owens perceived what was in front of him,” Jones said. “We don’t know what time he had to react.”
But raising his voice and banging on the bench before jurors, prosecutor Marc Chavez illustrated for the jury what Owens might have heard as he barreled down the street. “You heard everything from a ‘thump’ to ‘flesh meeting metal,’ a sound that is indescribable,” he told jurors, referencing testimony from eyewitnesses.
Those were not obstacles, Chavez said, but people, like Le and Tatum, who lost their lives.
“What Mr. Jones did was insult every single citizen of Travis County by using that word — accident,” Chavez said. “What our community went through that night was an unbelievable tragedy, and it was no accident.”
Outside the courtroom, Meredith and Chavez said the case was never about drunken driving to them but a man who knowingly took selfish actions.
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