Tania Owen will never forget the massive bruise over her husband’s heart in the spot where he proudly wore his badge for nearly 30 years of service to the Sheriff’s Department.
Sgt. Steve Owen was killed on duty Oct. 5, 2016, while responding to a woman’s 911 call about a Lancaster burglary.
The suspect in the killing, Trenton Lovell, stands accused of shooting backward at Steve Owen without looking, while Lovell was running away from the deputy, who was pursuing Lovell. Seeing that Owen was struck and temporarily disabled by the gunshot wound, the evidence indicated that Lovell then walked over to the downed officer and fired three bullets into his head, “execution style,” Tania Owen said, plus a final one into the badge, which she believed was a message to law enforcement. Lovell, who also has been arrested numerous times, reportedly gave a recorded confession.
For the last four years, Owen and her family have sought only what any family who has to deal with a murdered loved one would want, she said: “justice.”
However, under a recent series of special directives by District Attorney George Gascón, she’s now worried that that day might not come, which was part of why she was in court Wednesday for a proceeding that was unusual, by its very nature, even for someone with a career in law enforcement like Tania Owen.
“We’re not trying to get more (prison) time for Lovell — it’s already in the books,” Owens said, referring to statutory punishments, or sentencing enhancements, that Gascón asked all prosecutors to ignore with a series of special directives on his first day in office. “The number of years that a person is going to serve is not something we pick out of thin air.”
With one month left in 2020, the prosecution, along with the Owen family, were on course to seek the death penalty for Lovell, more than four years after the shooting.
Tania Owen stated that it was their intention to present the case to CAPOS, or the Crimes Against Police Officers with the Target Crimes Division of the District Attorney’s Office, which could then determine if the death penalty could be pursued by the prosecutor.
However, upon entering office Dec. 8, the newly elected Gascon implemented a series of directives that eliminated special circumstances allegations. These enhancements are part of state law, and direct judges to add time to a sentence based on whether the statutory conditions have been proven, e.g. if a gun was used, if an officer was a victim, if there was a premeditation, etc.
“Mr. Gascón immediately put out a directive saying that any and all cases where the death penalty is being pursued are to cease,” said Owen. “He was not going to pursue any death penalty cases, and our case was never presented to CAPOS.”
At the most recent court date, Owen said, the purpose of the hearing was to give the DA an opportunity to dismiss all enhancements, strike allegations and special circumstances in this case.
However, and this is the unprecedented portion, according to Matt Murphy, an attorney for Tania Ownen, the victim’s family was also set to be allowed to present a victim impact statement in court, so Judge George Lomeli could consider ignoring Gascón’s directives and pursue a harsher potential sentence for Lovell .
This is known as a Marsy’s Law hearing, in which victims have a protected ability to assert their rights within the courtroom. Murphy said he was unaware of any precedent for what’s known as a Marsy’s Law hearing to take place pretrial in order to seek a fair potential punishment for a suspect. (Typically, a Marsy’s Law hearing would take place after a conviction, before sentencing.)
But while the family was in attendance at court Wednesday to have their statement read, Lovell reportedly could not be in court due to what the public defender claimed was a COVID-19 diagnosis.
“The bailer looked into that this morning, and he’s like, ‘The guy is not in medical isolation, he’s not doing COVID protocol and he has no symptoms,” said Murphy, a victim’s rights attorney. “And this stuff isn’t their fault, like I don’t have a problem with the public defender. This is all Gascón.
“I feel for the deputy district attorney, because they don’t feel that they can do their job, as long as this individual (Gascón) is there who is opposing what they’re meant to do,” said Owen. “Essentially, (Gascón) is not for the victims. He is for the suspect.”
What all this means for Lovell’s case now is that while the District Attorney’s Office may pursue dropping the special circumstance allegations in the case, Murphy and the Owen family are moving to continue their plea for life without parole, should Lovell be convicted.
If the special circumstances aren’t added, Murphy said, there are a number of scenarios where Lovell could do far less time.
If, for example, a jury finds him guilty of second-degree murder, but there are no sentence enhancements, “They are going to get their parole hearing 12 years from the date of their arrest,” said Murphy. And Lovell has already served four years in county jail while awaiting his actual trial.
“This guy could literally do less than six in a state prison for the murder of Steve Owen,” Murphy said, expressing frustration over the special directives. “Some guy could shoot a cop in the face three times and execute him — and could get the same exact sentence as a person who knocks over a little old lady.”
In response to a request for comment Wednesday regarding the Lovell case, the District Attorney’s Office issued a statement: “Gascón firmly believes that sentencing enhancements unnecessarily tacks on additional years for someone who already faces decades in prison if convicted of a violent crime.
“With the parole board only granting release in about 15% of cases it hears, the suggestion that this individual would get out, let alone reoffend, strains credulity,” said the DA’s office in the statement. “Punishment should be in the best interest of the community and serve a rehabilitative or restorative purpose.”
After Wednesday’s deliberations and continuance, the family is now set to return to court on Feb. 22 to read their statements and argue that Lovell should be eligible for life without parole, at which time Lomeli will have the discretion to determine if the special circumstances should be applied in the event Lovell is convicted.
Tania Owen said prosecutors should be given discretion to seek an outcome that any victim would want in a similar scenario.
“It doesn’t matter what your background is, whether you’re Black, white, brown, purple, pink,
green or party lines — Democrat or Republican, rich or poor,” Tania Owen said after Wednesday’s hearing. “Here’s the bottom line: If any of our loved ones are murdered, we all want the same thing, all of us: And that’s justice.”
Signal Managing Editor Perry Smith contributed to this report.