People tend to those who were struck by the car in downtown Austin, Texas. Photo: AP
AUSTIN, Texas-The man accused of killing two people and injuring 22 others as he raced his car past barricades on a downtown Austin street packed with pedestrians told investigators he fled from a traffic stop because he feared being arrested over outstanding warrants.
Rashad Owens was charged Friday with one count of capital murder in the deaths of Steven Craenmehr, 35, and Jamie West, 27. Breath test results show that Owens had a blood alcohol level over the legal limit. The 21-year-old Killeen resident remained in the Travis County Jail on Friday with bail set at $3 million.
Although Police Chief Art Acevedo initially said that two counts of capital murder would be filed in the deaths of West and Craenmehr, law enforcement officials said Friday that the lone charge was filed under a section of the penal code that says a person commits capital murder if they murder more than one person during the same crime.
The charge, which could lead to Owens' execution, is a rare if not unprecedented response to a suspect accused of hitting and killing others while driving intoxicated, local and statewide legal authorities said.
However, legal experts say it could be difficult to successfully prosecute the case as officials must prove Owens acted with the intent to kill or while knowing his actions could result in the deaths of others.
Although Owens was booked into jail around 5:45 a.m. Thursday, he didn't go before a magistrate judge until Friday afternoon, after police met with prosecutors and discussed the evidence. Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said aggravated assault charges also could be filed in connection with the 22 people wounded in the incident.
"This is really an unprecedented tragedy," she said, referring to the toll of dead and injured. "I have not seen a case with multiple victims like this in the 30-plus years I've been at the district attorney's office."
She said she doesn't know of any cases in Travis County in which a driver suspected of hitting and killing people was charged with capital murder.
Shannon Edmonds, staff attorney for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said he couldn't recall any such cases statewide. Capital murder charges are the hardest to make stick, he said, because prosecutors must prove the person acted intentionally or knowingly - not just recklessly.
"The state still has to prove that the person meant to kill those victims," he said.
The investigation's findings can lend credence to such a case, he said, including testimony from witnesses who could say they saw the driver was headed down the street and then swerved into the crowd, or that he sped up instead of slowing down when he saw pedestrians.
The case could also be complicated if Owens was intoxicated, Edmonds said. Police haven't released the results of a blood sample they took the night of his arrest, but a breath test showed his blood alcohol level was 0.114, according to court records.
The more intoxicated someone is, the easier it is for defense lawyers to argue that the person didn't act intentionally, Edmonds said. Voluntary intoxication, being drunk or high, isn't a legal defense that could lead to an acquittal, but it can still be relevant to a suspect's mental state at the time of the crime, he said.
Officials declined to discuss the case against Owens in detail Friday, but his arrest affidavit says video evidence shows he was "intentionally or knowingly hitting people" and was running through anything in his path at such a speed that people had no chance to get out of the way.
The affidavit, released Friday, provided new details about what police say happened early Thursday.
According to the document, Owens was driving a Honda Civic west on East 12th Street without headlights on when he turned south onto the Interstate 35 frontage road from the wrong lane. He almost crashed into officer Lewis Traylor, who also was driving west on East 12th looking for drunken drivers. Traylor turned on his lights to stop Owens, who pulled into the parking lot of a Shell gas station on the corner of Ninth Street, squeezed between the building and cars stopped at the gas pumps, and then turned the wrong way on Ninth Street, a one-way road for eastbound traffic.
Police said that Traylor's patrol car couldn't fit between the building and the pumps so he had to back out of the station's driveway before he could follow Owens onto Ninth Street. He saw the Honda heading toward Red River, which was closed to vehicles for South by Southwest, and tried to catch up with Owens before he reached the crowd. An officer by the barricade waved his arms and yelled for Owens to stop, but the Honda turned onto the packed street, where officials say it immediately started hitting pedestrians.
Witnesses said that they heard the Honda's motor rev and that the car accelerated down the street, the affidavit says. As Traylor turned the corner and saw Owens running over people, it says, he activated his sirens to try to warn revellers of the oncoming car.
At the intersection of 11th Street and Red River, Owens hit West, who was on a small motorcycle with her husband, Evan, and Craenmehr, who was on a bicycle, the affidavit says. Craenmehr and West were pronounced dead at the scene; West's husband was hospitalized in a serious condition on Friday.
Footage from police dashboard cameras show the Honda accelerated for almost three city blocks without braking, the affidavit says.
Owens then ran from the car, according to police, and Traylor used his Taser twice to stop him when he caught up. Owens was treated for minor injuries at the hospital, where the affidavit said he told police that he saw Traylor's patrol car lights in his mirror and "got scared because he has warrants."
He told detectives that he didn't want to go to jail for five years for something he didn't do, explaining that he has "kidnapping warrants" in connection with a custody battle over one of his children. Police didn't respond to questions on Friday about whether those warrants exist, and a search of public records turned up no such documents.