Rashad Owens guilty of capital murder

What we learned at the trial in the SXSW tragedy

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.

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'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.

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Mental state

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.”

“I didn’t mean to hurt nobody. I was just scared.”

Rashad Owens

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.

“You heard everything from a ‘thump’ to ‘flesh meeting metal,’ a sound that is indescribable.”

Prosecutor Marc Chavez

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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Eight questions from the trial

1. What was Owens’ state of mind?

Rashad Owens did not take the witness stand. But on Wednesday his voice flooded the courtroom as he yelled and sobbed, telling an officer he had been scared and had not meant to kill anyone. His words, captured in on dash camera footage, strengthened his defense. But prosecutors sought to show Owens had been alert and refused to answers questions about what he drank that night.

2. Were the headlights on?

Prosecutors sought to show Owens could see he was hitting people when he drove a gray Honda Civic into crowds on Red River Street. Austin police initially tried to stop Owens when he was spotted driving without headlights on. But at least four out of 15 eyewitnesses said they saw the glare of headlights as Owens drove in their direction. Investigators said those might have been the car’s automatic daytime lights. Defense lawyers suggested those had been too dim to illuminate the street and that Owens had been too intoxicated to turn on the full headlights.

3. Did he thwart a barricade on East Ninth and Red River streets?

Defense lawyers argued Owens was visiting from Killeen and had been confused and disoriented when he turned onto Red River and had likely had not known it was closed to vehicles. But at least two witnesses said they saw him crash through a barricade. Officer Michael Hankemeier, who had been sitting by it, said he did not see Owens hit the roadblock and did not know if he jumped the curb, but he said he did try to flag down Owens and yelled at him to stop.

4. Was Owens swerving or did he drive straight through the crowds?

Prosecutors argue Owens made no attempt to stop or avoid people as he fled police, which they said showed his intention was to flee at whatever the cost. But at least one young woman said she saw the Honda swerving and“hitting people like bowling pins” before it struck her leg and threw her to a curb. Other witnesses said they saw him speeding down the street in a straight line.

5. Did Owens attempt to stop or slow down?

None of the 15 witnesses said they saw Owens ever stop or slowdown, even as he sent people flying through the air. And none said they saw his brake lights turn on. Such testimony could help prosecutors show the only thing on his mind was getting away.

6. Why did Owens swerve around a car on the road?

Austin resident David Johnson said he had been parked in the middle of the right lane on Red River, when Owens swerved around him and struck two people on a motorcycle, then a bicyclist and a white cab.Prosecutors suggested the move showed Owens had the presence of mind to maneuver the car, but defense lawyers suggested he likely did not see the other vehicles behind Johnson's car, as Owens had been drunk and running from police.

7. Could witnesses see Owens’ face?

None of the 15 eyewitnesses said they could see Owens’ face or expressions as he struck music fans when he barreled down Red River. His defense contended no one could tell what his intentions had been that night.

8. How drunk was Owens?

About an hour after the crash, which occurred about 12:30 a.m. on March 13, 2014, Owens’ blood-alcohol content was measured at 0.114 in a breath test, higher than the legal limit of .08. A blood sample taken about an hour later showed his level at 0.095. And an hour later it was measured at 0.074.But Austin police officer Robert Mitchell, with the DWI unit, said the progression did not indicate whether Owens was at peak drunkenness or whether he sobering up when the crash occurred. Being drunk or high is not a legal defense, but it did help defense lawyers argue Owens might not have been aware his actions were deadly.

What Happened That Night

Explore an interactive map of the deadly 2014 South by Southwest crash from witnesses who testified in the capital murder trial of Rashad Owens.