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Owens v. State

Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin

November 22, 2017

Rashad Owens, Appellant
v.
The State of Texas, Appellee

         FROM THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY, 147TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT NO. D-1-DC-14-100031, HONORABLE CLIFFORD A. BROWN, JUDGE PRESIDING

          Before Chief Justice Rose, Justices Field and Bourland

          OPINION

          JEFF ROSE, CHIEF JUSTICE.

         A jury convicted Rashad Owens of capital murder for killing four people in the same criminal transaction as he drove through a barricaded street during the SXSW music festival in downtown Austin. See Tex. Penal Code § 19.03(a)(7)(A). Because the State did not seek the death penalty, Owens automatically received a sentence of life in prison without parole. See id. § 12.31(a)(2). In four appellate issues, Owens contends that there was insufficient evidence to support his conviction, that the State's closing argument was improper, that the district court erred by denying Owens's requested voir dire question, and that it erred by denying his requested jury-charge instruction. We will modify the district court's judgment of conviction to reflect that the "Degree of Offense" was a capital felony, not a first-degree felony, and affirm the judgment as modified.

         BACKGROUND

         Owens was indicted for capital murder and four counts of felony murder while evading arrest. See id. §§ 19.02, .03. Owens and two acquaintances, Andrew Bramwell and Alex Witherspoon, had traveled from Killeen to Austin. Bramwell testified that he used his car to drive Owens and Witherspoon, who were scheduled to perform at a club that evening. Bramwell testified that after they arrived at the club, Owens went to the car to get CDs with backing music for the performance. But according to Bramwell, Owens left the club in Bramwell's car without permission and did not return.

         Events leading to the indicted offenses were captured on a patrol-car video. The video shows Owens driving in the dark with the car's daytime running lights activated, but not its headlights, heading west on 12th Street toward IH-35, then making a left turn onto the access road of southbound IH-35 from the right lane on 12th Street, cutting in front of a patrol car. The officer in the patrol car testified that he suspected Owens was driving without using headlights and that he activated his patrol car's overhead lights after Owens made the illegal left turn. Owens pulled into a Shell gas station at the corner of the IH-35 access road and 9th Street. Video from the gas station shows Owens appearing to slow as he drove toward the space between the gas station's convenience store and cars parked at the gas pumps. The patrol car also slowed and then stopped near the entrance of the gas station. But Owens did not stop. He drove out of the gas station, turning the wrong way westbound onto 9th Street-a one-way street-with the patrol car following about half a block behind.

         The first intersection on 9th Street west of IH-35 is Red River. Maps, photographs, video footage, and witness testimony showed that an apartment complex and two music venues, at the time hosting SXSW shows, were located on Red River between 9th and 10th streets. Red River was closed to through traffic as designated by portable barricades, cones, and signs. A police officer stationed at the barricade on Red River at 9th Street testified that although Red River was blocked, there was some room between the barricade and the sidewalk to allow any emergency vehicles to pass and for residents of the apartments to access their parking garage.

         The driver of a truck eastbound on 9th Street testified that while she was stopped for pedestrians crossing at the Red River intersection, she saw a car come out of the gas station at the end of 9th Street "going really fast" toward her, traveling the wrong direction. She stated that she tried unsuccessfully to alert the oncoming driver by flashing the lights on her truck and honking. Patrol-car video shows that Owens turned right from 9th Street onto Red River, going past a "Road Closed" sign and barricades. The police officer testified that when he turned onto Red River behind Owens, his patrol car had to "squeeze between the barricade and the curb."

         The jury heard testimony that Red River was crowded with pedestrians when Owens drove onto the street. Eyewitnesses testified that Owens hit several people, throwing them into the air, but that Owens kept going. Multiple witnesses, including some who were hit by the car, testified that they heard the car accelerate as it drove through the crowded street and that they never saw the car's brake lights illuminated. A certified mechanic who examined the car after the offenses occurred testified that "[m]echanically speaking, the braking system was completely intact" and functioning. Bramwell testified that his car was new when he bought it two years before Owens used it and that there was nothing wrong with the car. An accident reconstructionist testified that the car's speed exceeded 55 miles per hour as Owens drove north on Red River between 9th and 10th streets.

         Patrol-car video shows that after hitting the first victims on Red River between 9th and 10th streets, Owens continued driving north on Red River toward 11th Street. The video further shows that Owens swerved around a blue car stopped at a red light on Red River at 11th Street. The driver of the blue car testified that he drove to Red River from 10th Street and that he noticed a barricade blocking Red River at the intersection with 10th Street. He testified that he turned right from 10th Street onto Red River carefully because of the crowds of pedestrians that were crossing Red River and on the sidewalks, including people who were getting on or off of motorcycles and bicycles. Halfway up the block between 10th and 11th streets, the driver stated that he saw a car coming from behind him at a high rate of speed and that he told his passenger to brace for impact. When none occurred, he knew that his car had been avoided. He testified that he then heard a loud crash coming from his right and behind his car, which he realized was a collision in the lane next to him, involving motorcyclists and a bicyclist he had seen earlier on 10th Street. The driver saw "motorcycles and bodies and things sort of flying through the air, " landing at the corner of 11th Street. He further testified that he saw the car that hit them continue along, hitting a taxicab at the intersection of 11th Street, and spinning into a parking lot.

         The police officer driving behind Owens similarly testified that he saw the car run a red light at 11th Street, that he "observed several more people flying 20 or 30 feet in the air and being thrown, " and that the car then broadsided a white cab. According to the officer, the impact of that collision redirected the car Owens was driving to the northwest curb of a parking lot at 11th Street and Red River, where the car stopped after crashing into a parked van. Photos from the scene admitted into evidence show that the car's front and side airbags deployed. The accident reconstructionist testified that the car's airbag-control module or "black box" recorded the car's throttle percentage-i.e., how far the gas pedal was pressed down-as increasing from 65% to 100% during the time that Owens drove on Red River.

         After crashing into the van, Owens attempted to flee the scene on foot, but police apprehended him. The jury saw patrol-car video of Owens's interaction with police after his arrest, in which he stated that he hoped he had not killed anybody. But the evidence at trial showed that Owens struck multiple people while driving on Red River, injuring dozens in the crowd and causing the deaths of four people: Steven Craenmehr, Sandy Le, Deandre Tatum, and Jamie West. A forensic scientist testified that Owens had a blood-alcohol content of .095, and a toxicology chemist testified that Owens tested positive for marihuana.

         At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Owens guilty on all charges as alleged in the indictment. The district court rendered judgment on the capital-murder count, sentencing Owens to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Owens filed a ...


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