Conan Owen, the Annandale man who proclaimed his innocence as he spent 20 months in Spanish and U.S. prisons after being convicted of smuggling cocaine, was awarded $5 million yesterday by a Fairfax County jury in a suit against the convicted drug dealer who he says duped him.
The jury also awarded Owen's parents, who conducted an exhaustive campaign to gain their son's freedom, $1 million each in the suit against George Esuardo Barahona, a former Alexandria man whose whereabouts are unknown.
Owen and his parents, Ernest and Raquel Owen, sobbed as they told the jury how Owen unwittingly became involved in a scheme to transport almost two kilograms of cocaine from South America to Spain.
Barahona was not present in the courtroom and did not answer the suit. Owen, 25, and his parents had asked for $4 million in damages.
The Owen family said yesterday they don't know if they will ever see the money they were awarded, but they sued on principle and for further verification that Conan Owen was innocent.
On the stand, Owen, a 1986 honors graduate of Syracuse University who hoped for a career as a photographer, broke down as he explained that he has been unable to find a permanent job since he was released from prison. He also said he has no social life.
He said he has received 33 rejection letters from newspapers where he sought jobs. Each rejection, his psychologist testified, sent him deeper into depression.
He said he tried a job as a substitute teacher in Fairfax County, but the school system released him after finding out about his conviction. He recently got a temporary job as a newspaper photographer in Ann Arbor, Mich.
"For the past two years, I had been robbed of my life," Owen testified. "It's affected every aspect of my life. Any reference to Spain, to drugs, to prison, it immediately reminds me that this happened. People feel uneasy around me. They don't know what to say."
The tale started in 1987 when Conan was approached by Barahona, who offered him $1,000 to travel to Chile and Spain and shoot photographs for a travel brochure. Barahona asked him to carry a suitcase full of brochures from Fairfax to Spain.
In Chile, Owen said, the suitcase was switched for another bag. When he arrived in Spain, he said, customs agents immediately stopped him.
"They began to question me," he said. "Who was I supposed to meet? What kind of drugs were in there? Do you want us to rip open this suitcase? They took a knife and slit open the suitcase and began taking out bags with white powder. That's when I began to feel very, very sick and very scared."
The Spanish prison where he was sent was hundreds of years old and very dark and very dirty, he testified. He spent most of his days in a 9-by-12-foot cell, which he shared with five other prisoners, with a small sink and a toilet.
Owen said a Spanish court repeatedly gave him false hope of release on bail and promised him a speedy trial. His trial came a year after his arrest. He was sentenced to six years and a day in prison.
His hopes were raised again when then-Attorney General Edwin Meese III presented evidence to the Spanish court of Owen's innocence, that he had been duped into acting as a drug courier.
"Sure enough, they denied the evidence," Owen said. "It was like being on a very large and very sick yo-yo."
Spain agreed to let Owen serve his sentence in the United States in a transfer authorized by an international treaty governing the exchange of sentenced prisoners. Under that treaty, he had to accept the Spanish verdict that he was guilty and give up any right to appeal.
He spent a month in federal prisons before he was allowed to return to his Annandale home, where he spent six weeks under house arrest.
On paper, Owen is a convicted drug dealer, and he remains on parole through next March.