The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

Earle blasted in Owens case

By Jordan Smith, January 30, 2004, News

On Jan. 22, Barbara Shorts, mother of Jessie Lee Owens, who was killed this summer by Austin Police Officer Scott Glasgow, renewed her call for the local U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate whether Travis Co. District Attorney Ronnie Earle thwarted the grand jury investigation into Owens' death. Shorts told reporters that although her family had previously been advised to call on the U.S. attorney, they had declined to do so, preferring to allow the criminal justice system to run its course. "We realize now that we were naive and blind to the simple truth," Shorts read from a prepared statement. The "leadership of the [DA's office] and the Austin Police Department will never, never, hold white police officers accountable, in any fashion, for killing black citizens."

On Oct. 20, a Travis Co. grand jury indicted Glasgow on one count of criminally negligent homicide in connection with the June 14 shooting death of Owens in the heart of East Austin. But the indictment was widely criticized because it sought to hold Glasgow accountable for Owens' death based on an alleged series of procedural missteps – from parking his police car too close to the car Owens was driving, to failing to wait for a backup unit before approaching Owens. The indictment never mentions the actual shooting or points to a specific cause of Owens' death, and Glasgow's attorney Travis Williamson challenged it as legally inadequate – an assessment shared by Earle's office. After a one-hour hearing on Jan. 15, District Judge Brenda Kennedy ruled that the indictment would be thrown out.

Earle has repeatedly said that his office drafted the Glasgow indictment exactly as the grand jurors asked – an argument reiterated by Assistant DA Gary Cobb in court on Jan. 15 – a claim that Shorts calls a lie. "It is ... Earle's office that deliberately drafted an indictment to fail in court," she said. "The truth is that ... Earle obstructed the will and the decisions of the grand jury." Shorts declined to elaborate, upon the advice of attorneys, and did not provide any detail to support her charge.

Further, Shorts alleges that in an effort to "prop up his decision to dump the case," Earle "leaked" a report of the independent forensic investigation, conducted as part of the grand jury's investigation. In the report, investigator Tom Bevel outlined his review of the Owens crime scene and the forensic evidence, concluding that the evidence supports Glasgow's version of events. Although sources have told the Chronicle that Owens' family urged Earle to hire Bevel, last week Shorts said that Earle decided to release the report "in an attempt to justify" his decision not to prosecute Glasgow.

Shorts isn't alone in accusing Earle of wrongdoing – nor is she alone in not offering any specific evidence to support that charge. On Jan. 20, Nelson Linder, head of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, penned a letter to the DA demanding his resignation. "[R]ather than pursue the charges presented to you by the [grand jury], your office appears to have deliberately undermined the [jury's] assertion," he wrote. "Rather than prepare and submit the proper indictment, you and your assistants appear to have created the impression that the [grand jury] was completely incompetent." Linder told the Chronicle that there is "of course, no tangible evidence," that Earle manipulated the indictment and then lied about it. "The proof," he said, "is in the end result."

In response, Earle wrote that he was "saddened and disappointed" by Linder's letter. "I have sought to be steadfast in the pursuit [of justice] for many years and sometimes that means that I make all sides to a controversy unhappy," Earle wrote. "While it is our duty to see that justice is done, it is not within our power to remedy the injustices of 400 years."

Shorts told reporters that her family is compiling a petition (available via e-mail at in support of her bid to have the U.S. attorney investigate Earle's office and its actions in the case. "Even now," she said, "we have faith that the American system of justice will not fail us entirely."

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