March 16, 2014
by David Nachtigall
For the past several days, the media has reported on the tragic deaths of two pedestrians and the injury of 23 others at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. According to the reports, Rashad Owens drove a vehicle into a crowd of people while attempting to evade police. At the time of the offense, his blood alcohol content was allegedly 0.114, exceeding the legal limit of 0.08.
Based on the allegations, Owens faced a range of potential charges for causing the deaths including manslaughter, intoxication manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, or first-degree murder. The Travis County District Attorney’s Office has made the decision to charge Owens with capital murder, the highest degree of offense under Texas law. By charging Owens with capital murder, the prosecution will be required to prove that he “intentionally” or “knowingly” caused the deaths of two individuals in the “same criminal transaction”. If convicted, Owens will be sentenced to life without parole or death by lethal injection
- First of all, what is capital murder in Texas?
Capital murder under Texas law (Texas Pen. Code Sec. 19.03) is defined as a murder accompanied by certain aggravating factors. These aggravating factors include murder committed in the course of burglary or robbery, the murder of a police officer, and the murder of a child under ten years of age. In the case of Rashad Owens, the aggravating factor is the murder of more than one person in the same criminal transaction.
- What will the prosecutors have to prove in order to convict Owens of capital murder?
In order to convict Owens, the prosecutors will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Owens “intentionally” or “knowingly” caused the deaths of at least two individuals in the same criminal transaction. This means that if the evidence shows that Owens’ behavior was instead reckless or criminally negligent, the jury should not find him guilty of capital murder.
Under the Texas Penal Code, “a person acts intentionally…with respect to the nature of his conduct or to a result of his conduct when it is his conscious objective or desire to engage in the conduct or cause the result.”
It is unlikely that prosecutors will take the position that Owens’ murders were intentional – that he deliberately drove into a crowd for the purpose of killing people. The news reports thus far and arrest affidavit do not support that position.
Under Texas law, “[a] person acts knowingly…with respect to the nature of his conduct or to circumstances surrounding his conduct when he is aware of the nature of his conduct or that the circumstances exist. A person acts knowingly, or with knowledge, with respect to a result of his conduct when he is aware that his conduct is reasonably certain to cause the result.” Alternatively, “[a] person acts recklessly…with respect to circumstances surrounding his conduct or the result of his conduct when he is aware of but consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the actor’s standpoint.”
This case may come down to a dispute over whether Owens’ behavior was “knowing”, meaning that he can be convicted of capital murder, or whether it was “reckless”, meaning he cannot. Absent a thorough review of the police reports and other evidence in the case, it is irresponsible to speculate upon whether there is sufficient evidence to prove whether Owens knowingly committed the deaths. Interpretation of the nuances and details of evidence in a criminal case is often left to a jury.
- What happens if Owens is convicted of capital murder? What happens if he is not?
If Owens is convicted of capital murder, he will either be imprisoned for life without parole or face the death penalty. The Travis County District Attorney has discretion over whether to seek the death penalty if Owens is convicted. The decision to seek the death penalty in a capital murder case is one of the most serious decisions an elected official can make. The death penalty is ordinarily reserved for only the most heinous actors, taking into account the circumstances of the offense, the defendant’s criminal history, and any mitigating information that exists with respect to the defendant or the offense. If the District Attorney does seek the death penalty, the jury will have to decide certain “special issues” in order to assess it.
If the evidence does not support that Owens intentionally or knowingly caused the deaths of the two individuals, he may still be convicted of lesser included offenses including first-degree murder, manslaughter, and criminally negligent homicide. By seeking the maximum possible punishment, the District Attorney has created factual and legal hurdles that the prosecution will have to clear in order to convict Owens of capital murder. Whether the prosecution can meet its high burden in this case may ultimately be resolved by a Travis County jury.