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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Nonsense’ Murder Conviction Faces Review

WASHINGTON (CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Thursday to review a decision finding that a man spent 15 years in prison based on a "nonsense" conviction.

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. Two eye-witnesses told police that they saw 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. Furthermore, one witness said there had been two assailants, while the other 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. 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."

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 Thursday.

Per its custom, the court issued no comment on the case.

Owens is represented by Andrew Vail of Jenner Block.

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