By Jon Herskovitz
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The man accused of murdering four people when he rammed a car through a crowd at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival last year acted maliciously and with abandon, a prosecutor said in opening statements of the suspect's trial on Monday.
"Bodies were flying in the air as the defendant continued to hit victims without stopping," prosecutor Amy Meredith told the jury in Austin. "The only reason he stopped is because his car couldn’t go any further."
Lawyers for Rashad Owens, 23, said he did not intend to kill anyone. As he tried to evade police who had pulled him over, he was disoriented by altered traffic patterns in the Texas capital for the annual event that draws tens of thousands to the city, they said.
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 of them lined up outside a nightclub, as he sped through several city blocks.
Jamie West, 27, of Austin, and Steven Craenmehr, 35, of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, died at the scene.
Sandy Thuy Le, 26, who had moved from Mississippi to Austin, died about a week later from injuries suffered in the accident and 18-year-old DeAndre Tatum, of Fort Worth, died shortly after that.
Jurors were shown picture of the blood-soaked scene that was littered with victims.
Defense attorney Russell Hunt said Owens was in Austin to perform with a rap act and 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 told the jury. "We are not asking for forgiveness. We are asking for you to be reasonable."
Owens is also facing aggravated assault charges for those injured and an additional trial would depend on the results of the current proceedings, prosecutors said.
(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)