Owens' Family Calls for the Feds

Allegations of grand jury tampering against the DA and police chief

Family and friends of Jessie Lee Owens pray at the  U.S. Courthouse at a press conference denouncing  the investigation of his shooting.
Family and friends of Jessie Lee Owens pray at the U.S. Courthouse at a press conference denouncing the investigation of his shooting. (Photo By Jana Birchum)

Barbara Shorts, mother of Jessie Lee Owens, who was killed this summer by Austin Police Department Officer Scott Glasgow, said Oct. 30 that her family is asking the local U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate whether Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle and APD Chief Stan Knee meddled in grand jury proceedings in an attempt to protect Glasgow and stymie justice for Owens.

On Oct. 20, a Travis Co. grand jury indicted Glasgow on one count of criminally negligent homicide for the June 14 shooting in East Austin that left Owens dead. Glasgow shot Owens five times -- the culmination of a string of events during which Glasgow allegedly ended up partially trapped, his .40-caliber pistol drawn, in the door of a Dodge Neon (reported stolen) that Owens was driving. Yet the grand jury's indictment did not mention the shooting itself, instead alleging that Glasgow caused Owens' death through the chain of events leading up to the shooting -- a series of potential violations of police procedure. And that case may be difficult, if not impossible, to prosecute under state law, since APD procedures are intended as guidelines rather than hard-and-fast regulations.

After reading the indictment, Shorts and Owens' great-aunt Hazel Obey, a longtime Democratic activist and Eastside community leader, accused Earle of failing to "properly prepare" the indictment. On Thursday, the family honed that charge, turning it to an accusatory question of whether Earle and Knee colluded to thwart the will of the grand jury, by drafting this seemingly toothless indictment.

Now, Shorts said, her family will be asking that the U.S. Attorney's Office investigate the grand jury proceedings and deliberations leading up to the indictment, "to determine if [there was an] obstruction of justice," on the part of Earle or Knee. And she called the indictment "a slap in the face of the grand jurors, who thought [Glasgow] should be held accountable" for her son's death.

While the indictment suggests that the grand jurors thought Glasgow should be held accountable for his actions, it isn't clear whether they thought, or intended, that he would ever be prosecuted for it -- which prompts the question: Who wrote the indictment? And, perhaps more importantly, why did they do it? "The indictment was drafted pursuant to the specific instructions of the grand jury," Earle told the Chronicle last week, down to the "very specific language, as instructed by the grand jury." The jurors, who met for longer than the normal 90-day term specifically to deliberate Glasgow's case, may not have needed the DA to tell them the difference between a "negligence" case and, say, manslaughter. The grand jury's foreperson -- whose signature appears on the bottom of the indictment -- was Gordon Rubinett, a retired criminal defense attorney.

So, notwithstanding Owens' family's suggestion that the grand jury was tricked or manipulated, jurors could have known that the indictment they produced -- on which Earle claims to have only taken dictation -- would not likely lead to Glasgow's conviction. If so, were the grand jurors using the indictment process to send a message outside -- to APD, to the DA's office, or to the citizens at large? Earle declined to comment, citing the confidential nature of grand jury proceedings. The question of the grand jurors' intent may have to come from federal investigators -- should they choose to answer Shorts' call.

In any case, the official investigation into the shooting isn't over yet. The APD Internal Affairs Division is currently investigating the case, which will also be reviewed by new Police Monitor Ashton Cumberbatch and his office's citizen review panel. Meanwhile, Obey told reporters that the family has asked UT journalism lecturer and longtime Democratic politico Bob Mann to act as their spokesman for the duration of the investigation into Owens' death. While the Owens/Glasgow case may be full of "political ramifications," Mann told reporters, Owens' family is not interested in playing politics, "they're interested in truth and justice."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Police Shootings, Barbara Shorts, Jessie Lee Owens, Scott Glasgow, Hazel Obey, Stan Knee, Ronnie Earle, Travis County District Attorney, Austin Police Department, Bob Mann

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