I was a 7th grader in Bryan, Texas when I learned a fellow classmate had been killed by a drunk driver. I didn't know the boy who was killed personally, but I had seen him around school for years. A female student at A&M had been celebrating the end of finals by drinking all afternoon when she collided with him and his bicycle.
When I read in the newspaper that the driver had been charged with Intoxicated Manslaughter, I was one indignant 7th grader. It sure seemed like murder to me. I didn't like to hear the word "accident," since it was no accident that she had gotten drunk and killed a kid.
I was 12 years old back then, so I suppose I can be excused for not understanding the criminal charging process and how critical the levels of intent are when making those types of decision. In law school, aspiring lawyers are taught the main levels of intent are Intentionally, Knowingly, Recklessly, and Negligently. The type of crime a person is charged with is often determined by what he meant to do and those four levels are the ones used to describe that intention.
If I had understood the law when I was in 7th grade, I would have known that the actions of that female student were considered reckless. She had become intoxicated and decided to willfully disregard the potential dangers of driving while intoxicated. Her recklessness led to a death that she did not intend to happen. That's why it wasn't a murder.
Generally, murder is a specific intent type of crime. If you are being careless with a gun and it goes off and kills someone, that would most likely be a Criminally Negligent Homicide. If you were playing around with a loaded gun and it went off and killed someone, you would probably be looking at a Manslaughter charge for that reckless behavior.
However, if you take a gun and point it at someone and shoot them and they die, you are going to have a hard time arguing that it wasn't intentional and knowing conduct. That type of behavior will get you a murder charge. If you intentionally and knowingly do something that is intended to cause Serious Bodily Injury (for example, shoot somebody in the leg) and that results in a death, that can be filed as a murder, too.
I wrote this post back in 2011 about the Jessica Tata case, which explained the concept of Felony Murder. Felony Murder allows the State of Texas to charge you with a murder, even if you did not intend to kill someone, if that death resulted from you committing another felony. The classic example being the guy who is speeding away in a stolen car and unintentionally runs over and kills somebody.
The reason I'm giving you this Law School 101 tutorial is because, for the life of me, I cannot understand the charging decision coming out of the Travis County District Attorney's Office over the Rashad Owens case.
Most of you are probably familiar now with the tragic scene alleged to have been caused during Austin's South by Southwest Festival. Owens is accused of being intoxicated and fleeing from the police when he plowed into an unsuspecting crowd of festival attendees. Two were killed and many more were injured. Everything about the case illustrates a classic example of two counts of Felony Murder and/or Intoxication Manslaughter.
However, the Travis County Sheriff immediately announced he was seeking two counts of Capital Murder on Owens. Surprisingly, the Travis County District Attorney's Office agreed.
Here's the legal problem with that.
Capital Murder is the highest type of crime there is on a State level in Texas. If convicted of it, there are only two possible sentences a person can face -- Life in Prison Without the Possibility of Parole (or, as we call it "LWOP") or the Death Penalty. Since it is the highest of all charges, there are very strict and limited conditions that can turn a "regular" murder into a Capital Murder.
A Capital Murder can occur under many circumstances. It will be a Capital if a police officer or firefighter is killed in the line of duty. It will be a Capital if there is a child victim. It will be a Capital murder if the murder was committed in the course of another felony (such as aggravated robbery, sexual assault, kidnapping, or burglary). It will be a Capital Murder if there is more than one person murdered.
However, there is one thing that must be present for any crime to be a Capital Murder, and that is the Specific Intent to Kill.
If a person is robbing a bank and then intentionally kills the teller, he has committed Capital Murder. If a person is speeding away from a robbery and accidentally runs over someone in the process, he's just committed Felony Murder.
See the difference?
By charging Rashad Owens with Capital Murder, the powers that be are alleging that when he drove into the crowd, it was his planned hope and intention to kill someone. They are saying that Owens wasn't just a drunken jackass running from the cops and showing a tremendous disregard for the sanctity of human life. They are saying that he decided he specifically wanted to end the life of the people in front of him. It was his reason for being at that moment.
That's a pretty big stretch of the imagination if you ask me.
The allegations against Owens are still tremendous, even without them being Capital charges. Felony murder carries a punishment range of up to Life in prison. Intoxication manslaughter can be punished by up to 20 years in prison, and the law allows for stacked sentences in cases of multiple deaths due.
Mr. Owens has a very high probability of never being set free in society again.
But that doesn't make what he did a Capital Murder.
I don't know why the Travis County District Attorney's Office elected to file Capital Murder charges where a specific intent to kill seems to be absent. Maybe there is something about the case that I didn't see in the newspapers. Maybe Owens sat down with police and told them, "You know, I wanted to wrap up my crime spree by killing some people, so I drove my car straight at them."
I doubt it, though.
What seems a little more likely to me is that the Travis County District Attorney's Office wanted to send a message. A horrible crime happened that brought national attention to their jurisdiction and they wanted to file the highest possible charge they could -- regardless of whether or not they could ever prove that charge.
As a 7th grader, I think I could be excused for not understanding how the law worked.
I'm not so sure that the Travis County D.A.'s Office can be so easily excused.