On Monday, April 18th, the jury returned for closing arguments and deliberations. Judge Vigil read the charges: four counts of homicide by vehicle and one count of causing great bodily harm. He explained again that the burden of proof fell on the prosecution and that it was the jury's job to decide if Scott Owens was "a significant cause" of the accident. If the jury had reasonable doubt as to the defendant's guilt, it must find him, "Not Guilty."
Chief Assistant District Attorney Doug Couleur went first for the prosecution: There was no doubt that Scott Owens was driving drunk in the wrong lane and caused the crash. The defense theory just didn't hold up - there was no physical evidence that the teenagers caused the crash - that was just a theory unsupported by facts. Differences in testimony by the teenage witnesses was to be expected, given the chaos at the scene that night and their states of emotion and shock. The crash re-enactment done by the prosecution expert was the only one that fit with the crash damage and the road evidence.
For the defense, it was equally simple: Scott Owens was drunk, yes, but he didn't cause the crash. The teens were driving too fast and a minor collision between their vehicles sent the red Subaru spinning into Scott's path. It explains the mysterious damage to the right rear tail light of the red Subaru and it's supported by the 911 call, in which the teens seemed to be blaming the driver of the second car for causing the crash. And, even if the two crash-reconstruction experts cancelled each other out, you couldn't ignore the testimony of the final defense witness, a man who, as Attorney Cron put it, "doesn't have a dog in this fight." Mr. Armjillo, a humble and soft-spoken mechanic and alignment expert hired by the prosecution, determined that the wheels of Scott's Jeep had to have been going straight at the time of the crash.
Mr. Cron told the jury that to say that Scott Owens was a significant cause of the accident, you must be convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he was driving in the wrong lane. "If you even hesitate," said Mr. Cron, "then you must find him not guilty."
For a week now, jurors had listened intently to witnesses and considered the evidence. Every day, the courtroom had been full on both sides of the aisle - families and friends of the deceased teens, family and friends of the defendant. Now it was in the hands of the jury. There would be heartbreak no matter what the verdict.
The judge instructed the jury to go to the deliberation room. But first, he dismissed the alternates - four people who had participated fully as jurors throughout, and who did not know they were alternates until this moment. I was one of them. My initial reaction was relief that this burden had been removed from my shoulders. But there was some let-down, having been intimately part of something for over a week and then suddenly being shut out. The best analogy I can think of is if you are thinking about breaking up with someone, but then they beat you to it.
But the feelings of relief grew with every hour that the jury deliberated. They began at about 2 p.m. on Monday, and had not reached a verdict by 5:30 that day. They began again on Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. I was able to get updates on Twitter, as reporters covering the trial tweeted any time something happened. The day dragged on. By noon, Tuesday, there was still no verdict. Mid-afternoon, the reporter tweeted that the jury had notified the judge that they would deliberate until 5:30, and return again the next day.
Then, around 4pm, something new happened. The reporter tweeted that the jury had asked to view the vehicle evidence that was in the courtroom. This would be the right rear bumper of the red Subaru, with its unexplained damage, and the white Subaru side panel from the car the defense said had hit the red Subaru and caused the crash. I said to my husband, "That's interesting. It tells me that they are still considering the defense's theory."
Within an hour, the reporter tweeted that the jury had reached a verdict. The jury told the judge that they did not want to talk with anyone after reading the verdict, and wished to be allowed to leave the courthouse unhampered. The families were notified and given time to get back to the courtroom. After listening to a trial that lasted seven days, and having deliberated for almost 12 hours, the jury announced their verdict: Not Guilty on all counts.
The defendant and his lawyer cried. His parents cried. The families of the deceased teenagers were in shock. Headlines described the verdict as an "upset" and many in the community were stunned and even outraged by it. But opinions were strong on both sides - many felt that the teens had a role in causing the accident.
Scott Owens left court that day a free man, having spent two years in jail awaiting trial.
Many lives were changed as a result of what happened on the Old Las Vegas Highway in the early morning hours of June 28, 2009. Four children died, one was gravely injured and many more were traumatized. A young man who chose to drive while intoxicated may or may not have been the cause of their deaths. Even he doesn't know, and he will live with it all his life.
In all the details and drama of a trial, it's almost easy to forget about the young people who died. So that we don't forget, I want to tell you their names:
June 28, 2009, 2:09 am.