AUSTIN (KXAN) — His face remained still and emotionless as he learned he would spend the rest of his life behind bars, but Rashad Owens could not help but crack as victims of his crime talked to him directly.
“I’m sad, I’m broken, hurt and mad. Why did I have to lose my baby?” cried Shon Cook, the mother of Jamie West. West was one of four people who died when Owens drove a car through a crowded, barricaded street during the 2014 South-By-Southwest festival.
As he sat at the table listening to victim impact statements, Owens could be seen wiping his watering eyes while periodically looking up at the people talking to him and then back down at the table.
A Travis County jury found Rashad Owens guilty of capital murder after three hours of deliberations. By convicting Owens of capital murder, the jury found he knew his actions carried a reasonable certainty killing others on March 13, 2014 when he was trying to elude an officer pulling him over on a traffic violation. Since the state decided to not seek the death penalty, Owens will be sentenced to an automatic life in prison with no parole. The jury had the option to convict Owens on 1st degree murder and sentence him between 5-99 years in prison.
DeAndre Tatum,18, Jamie West,27, Steven Craenmehr,35, and Sandy Le,26, were killed in the crash. Some of the victims who addressed Owens were those who survived the crash while others were family members of the dead.
“That little tiny body you plowed through was infinitely a better person than you will ever be,” said Sandy Le’s sister, Pauline. The Le family sat in the front row for most of the trial, sobbing at times. Pauline told Owens her parents visit Sandy’s grave site, keeping it clean and tidy, the same way Sandy always kept her room.
While most of the impact statements were emotional, Maria Belyaeva spoke clearly and confidently as she told Owens her life would not be derailed.
“As you spend the rest of your life in jail, I hope you gain a respect for life because what you did was so so selfish,” she told him. “I’m still going to graduate and then I’m going to go live my life because you don’t get to impact me like that.”
Jacqueline Longhurst told Owens about the fear she felt as she turned to see his car speeding towards her.
“They say your life flashes before your eyes and it does. I remember that week running through my head and thinking ‘I am dying. This is it.”
Afterwards, Owens’ defense attorneys said he wrote a letter shortly after the crash he wanted everyone to see and hoped the letter would be read to the court.
“It was a very remorseful letter that showed a lot of empathy for the victims, the deceased and their families,” said Rickey Jones. Attorney Russ Hunt sat next to Owens at the defense table and said his client was obviously impacted.
“He asked me today if he could read the letter of apology to the court and he was not able to, but he cried during the presentation of these victim families because it was terribly moving and he felt the pain these folks felt,” said Hunt
Although they chose to call zero witnesses during the trial, the Owens defense used closing arguments to try and convince the jury to consider perception and reaction times involved in the deadly crash. The defense said if the jury broke down what Owens, 23, could not see and the time he had to react to what was in front of him, they would find enough reasonable doubt to spare Owens of a capital murder conviction.
“We do not know in that 1-3 seconds when he perceived ‘Oh my God, these are people’ or if he ever perceived it,” said defense attorney Rickey Jones. “You would go through me without knowing I was there and if you were moving fast enough and we know he was moving fast.”
It appeared the defense was only seeking to avoid a capital murder conviction. When it came to the capital murder charge, the jury had to find beyond reasonable doubt that Owens “acted knowingly that his conduct was reasonably certain to cause death.”
The state countered the defense’s closing argument by saying any reasonable person would know they would cause death by hitting the case while driving through a crowd and rejected Jones assertion a cracked windshield and the speed of the car would have affected Owens’ visibility. Prosecutor Marc Chavez said the sound of bodies hitting metal should have been enough.
“Any rational human being, the minute you hear the sounds, you either brake or let off the gas. You certainly do not floor it even faster,” said Chavez.
Families of the victims filled the courtroom which was standing room only during closing arguments.
Tweets by @chrissadeghi
On March 13, 2014, Owens, 23, drove his vehicle the wrong-way on a one-way street, blowing by a barricade and into a crowd of people. DeAndre Tatum,18, Jamie West, 27, Steven Craenmehr, 35, Sandy Le, 26, were the four people killed in the crash and dozens more injured.
In their opening statements Owens’ defense said it was never Owens’ intent for people to be injured and killed. Defense attorney Russ Hunt told the jury Owens was not familiar with Austin roads or the closures which happened during festivals like SXSW.
Police say a breathalyzer for Owens returned a blood alcohol content of .114, over the .08 legal limit. In earlier testimony, Andrew Bramwell said he, Owens, and another friend drove to Austin from Killeen. During the trip, Owens was drinking according to Bramwell. After arriving in Austin, Bramwell’s said Owens took his Honda Civic without his permission or knowledge. The 2012 Honda Civic was the car involved in the crash. Despite avoiding several questions from Mitchell during the field sobriety test, Owens ultimately admitted to drinking and driving.
Previous coverage of the trial
- Day 1: Trial begins, first witnesses called
- Day 2: Video of SXSW crash shows frantic aftermath
- Day 3: Video of Owens’ field sobriety test shown
- Day 4: Crash expert testifies
Crash reconstruction expert, Richard Harrington, testified Owens was going approximately 55 mph on the barricaded portion of Red River Street between 9th and 10th. After colliding with a barricade and people at the 10th and Red River intersection, Harrington found Owens’ speed dropped to about 40 mph, but could not say definitively if it was the impact which slowed him or if he was braking. The 10th and Red River intersection is where DeAndre Tatum and Sandy Le were killed, and others injured.
Harrington said there was no sign of braking up until the final collision with a taxi cab at the 11th and Red River intersection, but said the vehicle’s “black box” did not save data from earlier travel along Red River.