WASHINGTON (CN) - Just over a week after oral arguments, the Supreme Court said Wednesday it never should have waded into a conviction that the Seventh Circuit vacated as "nonsense."
The Chicago-based federal appeals court made the remark in a damning reversal last year that ordered the release of Lawrence Owens halfway through his 25-year sentence for the 1999 murder of 17-year-old Ramon Nelson.
Among the most troubling problems with the case had been flaws in the testimony from eyewitnesses who initially claimed to have seen Owens wield the stick that knocked Nelson off his bike and killed him in Markham, Ill., about 20 miles south of Chicago.
At trial, 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.
The witnesses also offered differing testimony as to how many assailants were involved in the attack.
Nelson had been carrying 40 individually packaged bags of crack cocaine in his coat pocket at the time of his death, and the trial judge seized upon this evidence in handing down his verdict against Owens.
"I think all of the witnesses skirted the real issue," Judge Joseph Macellaio told the court, as quoted by the Seventh Circuit. "The issue to me was you have a 17-year-old youth on a bike who is a drug dealer [Nelson], who Larry Owens knew he was a drug dealer. Larry Owens wanted to knock him off. I think the state's evidence has proved that fact. Finding of guilty of murder."
Macellaio died in 2013, however, leaving the courts to decide what he meant about the supposed facts. The Seventh Circuit wound up blasting Macellaio last year for his "verdict based on groundless conjecture."
Representing Owens, Jenner & Block attorney Barry Levenstam emphasized Macellaio's words immediately before issuing his verdict.
"In framing what the issue is to him, he says that Mr. Owens knew that this victim was a drug dealer and wanted to knock him off, presumably because he's a drug dealer," Levenstam told the court. "And from the very next thing that he says, his finding of guilty of murder."
Justice Stephen Breyer questioned whether the judge had been reacting to dissatisfaction with the witnesses, possibly believing they were not telling the truth out of fear.Levenstam said that possibility does not cut it for Illinois.
"My answer to that is that is speculation upon speculation upon speculation, and it's not a basis for putting somebody behind bars for 25 years," Levenstam said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor slammed the state's defense of Macellaio making assumptions about Owens, with no supporting evidence, out of "whole cloth."
With the Supreme Court throwing out its writ of certiorari Wednesday as improvidently granted, the Seventh Circuit's reversal remains intact.
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