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A jury on Friday found a driver guilty of capital murder in a crash that killed four people last year at the South by Southwest festival in Austin.
Authorities said the crash happened after Rashad Owens fled police during an attempted midnight traffic stop and accelerated through the festival crowd. The verdict means the 23-year-old will automatically spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole; prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.
The Austin American-Statesman reported that the Travis County jury returned with the verdict after a little more than three hours of deliberation. About 50 people had crowded into the courtroom to hear the verdict.
Those killed in the March 13, 2014, crash were: DeAndre “Dre” Tatum, 18, of Fort Worth; Jamie West, 27, and Sandy Le, both of Austin; and Steven Craenmehr, 35, of The Netherlands.
In closing arguments Friday, prosecutor Amy Meredith told jurors not to consider Owens’ intent, but to focus on how he was aware his conduct could be deadly. She said an officer had been trying to conduct a simple traffic stop when Owens refused to comply and fled.
Meredith told jurors that Owens had the wherewithal to turn on his blinker, maneuver his way around a gas station and swerve around a parked car in his way.
“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.”
Detective Richard Harrington, a crash reconstruction expert with Austin police, testified that surveillance footage captured Owens’ car traveling about 55 mph as he fled from the traffic stop and approached the festival crowd.
Defense lawyers Russell Hunt and Rick Jones described Owens as a young rapper from the small town of Killeen who had been unfamiliar with Austin and had not meant to kill anyone as he fled police. They said he likely did not know the street had been closed off to traffic when he sped down it without headlights on.
“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.”
After the jury’s verdict, relatives of those killed in the crash read victim impact statements in court, KXAN-TV reported.
“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.
Owens could be seen wiping his watering eyes while relatives read their statements.
“That little tiny body you plowed through was infinitely a better person than you will ever be,” said Sandy Le’s sister, Pauline.
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