As Death of Third SXSW Drunk Driving Victim Announced, District Attorney Announces Seeking Death Penalty for Drunk Driver

Finebloom, Haenel & Higgins

On March 13, 2014, two people died and dozens were injured when a drunk driver drove the wrong way on a one-way street during the SXSW music festival when attempting to evade police.  A third victim died on the morning of March 17, 2014 and others remain in serious and critical condition.  The driver of the vehicle, Rashsad Owens, was in Austin to perform at the festival when he was pulled over by police for a suspected DUI.  When he saw the flashing lights in his rear view mirror, he took off and went past barricades where he hit dozens of pedestrians attending the music festival.  He stopped his car about a block later and attempted to run.  He was eventually stopped by police and taken to a local hospital where a breathalyzer showed that his BAC was over the legal limit. Police also suspect that the car that Owens was driving was stolen.

Shortly afterwards, the district attorney in Austin announced that Owens was going to be charged with capital murder and the state of Texas would be seeking the death penalty in this case.  While some states, such as Texas, commonly seek the death penalty in murder cases, it is highly unusual to do it in a case such as this one for a number of reasons, which leads some legal experts to question the decision.

In Texas, the state can seek the death penalty in many kinds of murder cases including murder of a law enforcement officer, murder for hire, felony murder or murder of a child to name a few.  However, for nearly all of these, there usually would have to be intent for a death penalty sentence to stand, even in Texas.  This includes in the case of felony murder, where the murder involved must be an intentional one committed in the act of a felony, such as killing someone during a rape or a burglary. 

What is questionable here is whether the level of intent on the part of Owens rose to the level of that to sustain going after the death penalty in the case.  Even if he was driving a stolen car and intentionally evaded police, it seems borderline whether the intended outcome of his running away was to kill three people.  The intent for a capital murder case usually has to do with the intent to cause the death, not the intent to do something that ends up leading to a death.  While the chief of police has said that he has no question that this accident was an intentional act and the crime is most likely one that can almost definitely lead to a life sentence, it does not seem likely from the information available at this time that it is a crime for which Owens could be executed.

In Florida, the requirements for being charged with capital murder are somewhat different, but the rule for charging some offenders for capital murder for felony murder does remain.  In Florida, there is a specific list of crimes that count as felonies that could open someone up to a first-degree murder charge for felony murder.  Nearly all of these felonies involve some sort of violent act, meaning that if an accident such as the SXSW accident happened somewhere in Florida, the chances of the death penalty being sought would be unlikely.