By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A man accused of murdering four people at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival last year drove a car at high speed through throngs of people, sending bodies flying into the air, a witness said at the start of his trial on Monday.
Lawyers for Rashad Owens, 23, who is facing murder charges that could put him in prison for the rest of his life, said he never intended to kill anyone and made a terrible mistake after he panicked when being pursued by police.
"He was just driving super, super fast and whipped into that turn without stopping. He just whipped into that crowd of people" said Meredith Bradley, who told the court she saw the incident right in front of her.
She said one of the first victims flew into the air and hit the windshield of the car driven by Rashad, who just kept speeding through the crowd.
"You just saw those people being mowed down. The first victim got tossed around like a rag doll," she testified.
Owens is facing two sets of murder charges. The first is capital murder, which can bring life in prison without the possibility of parole, for intentionally killing the four. He is also facing felony murder, which can bring life in prison, for killing the four while trying to evade police.
"I am not guilty," Owens, dressed in a dark suit and a silver tie, said when he was asked to enter a plea at the start of the trial.
Police said Owens fled from a sobriety checkpoint on March 13, 2014, smashed through a police barricade and then mowed down nearly 30 people, some lined up outside a nightclub, as he sped through several city blocks.
Defense attorney Russell Hunt said Owens was in Austin to perform with a rap act and had borrowed someone's car to pick up a friend who had gotten lost. Owens, driving without his headlights on, panicked when he was pulled over by police.
"He didn't intend to kill anybody," Hunt said. "We are not asking for forgiveness. We are asking for you to be reasonable."
Jamie West, 27, of Austin, and Steven Craenmehr, 35, of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, died at the scene. Sandy Thuy Le, 26, died about a week later from injuries suffered in the accident and 18-year-old DeAndre Tatum, of Fort Worth, died shortly after that.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Sandra Maler)