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Illinois Stumbles Again in ‘Nonsense’ Murder Case

WASHINGTON (CN) - The Supreme Court shot down a request by Illinois to take back custody of a man found to have spent 15 years in prison based on a "nonsense" conviction.

Ramon Nelson was riding his bike in Markham, Ill., about 20 miles south of Chicago, when someone struck the 17-year-old on the head with a wooden stick and killed him.

When he was killed in 1999, Nelson was carrying 40 individually packaged bags of crack cocaine in his coat pocket. Two eyewitnesses told police that they saw Lawrence Owens kill Nelson, but after Owens' conviction in 2000 the testimony was deemed flawed.

At the trial, for example, one of the witnesses pointed to a photo of someone else in a photo array as being Owens, even though Owens was present in the courtroom.

While one of witnesses said there had been two assailants, another claimed there was only one, according to court documents.

The Seventh Circuit found in March that there was no precedent matching the circumstances of Owens' case - "unsurprisingly, given the combination of weak proof with a verdict based on groundless conjecture."

Judge Richard Posner, writing for a three-judge panel, called the bench trial and resulting verdict convicting Owens "nonsense."

The trial judge's verdict contained little explanation. This led the Seventh Circuit to rule that the evidence presented at the trial need not support every part of a judge's verdict, that verdict must still be based on fact.

"There was no factual basis of any sort for the judge's finding that Owens knew Nelson, let alone knew or cared that he was a drug dealer," Posner wrote. "The judge made it up. No evidence had been presented that Owens knew that Nelson was a drug dealer or that he wanted to kill him, or even knew him - a kid on a bike."

The Seventh Circuit reversed the decision denying Owens' appeal of his conviction. It gave the state 120 days to decide whether to retry him or release him from prison, then granted an extension of time to file an appeal with the nation's high court.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant the state a stay this past August, it came through with a writ of certiorari last month.

On Friday, the justices denied a request by Illinois to have Owens be returned to state custody pending final disposition of this case is denied.

This is a determination for the state court to make, the order states.

The order also grants an application to the Seventh Circuit's mandate, pending the high court's resolution of the case.

Owens is represented by Andrew Vail of Jenner Block.

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