‘Nonsense’ Murder Conviction Faces Retrial

     CHICAGO (CN) – A man who has spent the last 15 years in prison based on a conviction the Seventh Circuit called “nonsense” will face a retrial after the Supreme Court declined to get involved.
     Lawrence Owens was convicted in 2000 of the murder of 17-year-old Ramon Nelson, who was riding his bike in Markham, Ill. when he was struck on the head with a wooden stick. Markham is about 20 miles south of Chicago.
     When he was murdered in 1999, Nelson was carrying 40 individually-packaged bags of crack cocaine in his coat pocket. Police obtained statements from two eye-witnesses who claimed to have seen Owens kill Nelson, but the testimony was flawed.
     For example, one of the witnesses at trial pointed to a photo of someone else in the photo array as being Owens, even though Owens was present in the courtroom. And one witness said there had been two assailants, while the other claimed there was only one, according to court documents.
     In March, the Seventh Circuit found 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,” the court’s ruling states.
     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. While not every part of a judge’s verdict must be found in evidence presented at the trial, it must be based on fact, the Seventh Circuit ruled.
     “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. The judge made it up,” Posner wrote. “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.”
     An Illinois appellate court recognized this error, but a 2-1 majority found the error harmless, citing eyewitness testimony establishing Owens’ guilt. The Seventh Circuit, however, disagreed.
     “We can assume that if the evidence of Owens’ guilt had been overwhelming, the judge’s conjecture that Owens knew Nelson and knew him to be a drug dealer and that Owens was (as the judge’s comment implied) himself involved in the drug trade (why else would he want to kill Nelson?) could be disregarded as goofy but harmless,” Posner wrote. “But evidence of Owens’ guilt was not overwhelming.”
     U.S. Supreme Court precedent holds that neither a judge nor jury may convict a person based on a belief that has no support in the evidence, the Seventh Circuit ruled.
     “Just imagine that the judge in our case had said ‘I know there’s no evidence of guilt, but I also know that prosecutors in the City of Markham never prosecute an innocent person,'” Posner said. “The defendant would be entitled to relief in a habeas corpus proceeding even though that precise statement had never been uttered by a judge before.”
     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.
     The Supreme Court denied the state’s application to stay the appeals court’s mandate last week, but Owens’ attorney, Andrew Vail of Jenner Block, told Courthouse News that the state has elected to retry Owens in Cook County Criminal Court.
     Vail, who is handling the case pro bono, declined to comment on the case at this time because it is ongoing.

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