By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - A man charged with killing four people by plowing his car into a crowd at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival last year was found guilty of capital murder by a Texas jury on Friday and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors said Rashad Owens, 23, acted with intent and malice when he sent bodies flying in the air and traveled at high speed for several city blocks, leaving nearly 30 victims and a trail of blood in his wake.
His lawyers said he never intended to kill anyone and made a terrible mistake after he panicked while being pursued by police.
Owens, who was driving while intoxicated, evaded a police check point on March 13, 2014, and drove at about 55 mph (90 kph) into crowds of people, some lined up for nightclubs, until his car crashed. He then fled the vehicle and tried to escape before being caught by police, officers testified at the trial.
Prosecutor Marc Chavez said the minute Owens heard the thuds of his initial six victims, he should have stopped or slowed down. Instead he went on to hit about 20 more people.
"You don't floor it. How in the world do you go 99 percent throttle after that?" he said.
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.
After the sentence was handed out, families of the victims addressed Owens, who at times appeared to wipe back tears.
The sister of Le, 26 told Owens her family has been at her grave almost every day. Shon Cook, Jamie West's mother told Owens: "I'm sad, hurt and mad. Why did I have to lose my baby?" local broadcaster KXAN reported.
Owens' lawyers did not dispute that he killed and injured people but argued he was not guilty of capital murder, saying it was not his intent to kill anyone and he had too little time to react to the people in front of him.
Owens did not testify but prosecutors played police video from the scene where Owens is heard saying "I should have just stopped," and "Did I kill anybody? I promise I didn't mean to kill anybody if I did."
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Sandra Maler and Doina Chiacu)