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7th Cir. Overturns Conviction Based on Made-Up Evidence

By Mark Wilson, Esq. on March 25, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

It's a rare event, indeed, when a federal circuit court actually grants a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The federal habeas corpus standard is fairly unforgiving, granting great deference to lower courts and construing ambiguities in the law against the petitioner.

Owens v. Duncan, however, is a pretty clear-cut case of a defendant who was afforded very little of the process he was due. Judge Richard Posner showed little patience for a case based on "the combination of weak proof with a verdict based on groundless conjecture."

'The Judge Made It Up'

In 2000, Lawrence Owens was convicted of first-degree murder in a bench trial. The facts are this: A young man in a Chicago suburb received a fatal blow to the head while he was riding his bike away from a liquor store. The victim had 40 baggies of crack cocaine, packaged for sale, on his person.

Two eyewitnesses testified at Owens' murder trial. One witness identified Owens from a photo lineup, but Owens was the only suspect in both the photo lineup and the in-person lineup, so that wasn't very helpful. The other eyewitness identified Owens in a photo lineup, but then twice pointed to a photo of someone else at trial, even though Owens was in the courtroom.

That's about it. There was no physical evidence linking Owens to the murder, no evidence that Owens knew the victim, and the murder was committed almost two hours after dark. Nevertheless, the trial judge convicted Owens of the murder, claiming that Owens knew the victim was a drug dealer and "wanted to knock him off," even though the state didn't present any evidence of the kind. As Posner opined, "The judge made it up."

A Harmful Error

The state argued that the judge's inference was reasonable, but Posner didn't think so: The mere fact that the victim had drugs on him, by itself, didn't support the inference that Owens knew who he was and knew he was a drug dealer. The judge's bizarre conclusion would have been fine, said Posner, and would relegate the his unsubstantiated claim to the realm of "goofy and harmless," if evidence of Owens' guilt were otherwise overwhelming.

But it wasn't, and if the judge had based his decision on anything else, Owens wouldn't have had a chance. But the judge, for whatever reason, chose to call out Owens' knowledge of the victim as the fact that convinced him, despite there being no evidence of that presented at trial.

That's all well and good, but was this error of a constitutional dimension? It sure was, according to Posner, who said, "Given that the entire case pivoted on two shaky eyewitness identifications, Owens might well have been acquitted had the judge not mistakenly believed that Owens had known Nelson to be a drug dealer and killed him because of it."

Habeas petitions are granted only if the state appellate court's opinion is contrary to established constitutional law. To Posner, the law was pretty clear: "[A] judge or a jury may not convict a person on the basis of a belief that has no evidentiary basis whatsoever."

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