A guilty conviction cannot be based on nonsense

Owens v. Duncan, No. 14-1419 (7th Cir. Mar. 23, 2015).

The Constitution does not permit runcible convictions.

The Constitution does not permit runcible convictions.

One September evening, Ramon Nelson was killed by a fatal blow to the head. Nelson had been riding his bike back from a liquor store. He evidently sold drugs; some three dozen plastic baggies full of crack were found on his person. Two eyewitnesses identified the habeas petitioner here, Lawrence Owens, as the killer. No other evidence linked Owens to the murder.

The murder charges were tried to the bench rather than to a jury. At the close of the case, the judge didn’t base his verdict on the eyewitnesses’ testimony. He didn’t say that he found the eyewitnesses credible, or that he thought that, despite the evening’s gathering dark, the street lighting enabled them to see the killing. No, he said something truly inexplicable: 

I think all of the witnesses skirted the real issue. The issue to me was you have a seventeen-year-old youth on a bike who is a drug dealer, who Larry Owens knew he was a drug dealer [sic]. Larry Owens wanted to knock him off. I think the State’s evidence has proved that fact. Finding of guilty of murder.

As the Seventh Circuit notes, this explanation is bizarre. There was no evidence that Lawrence Owens knew Nelson. There was no evidence that Owens sold drugs or even knew drug dealers.

Because the judge’s reason for finding Owens guilty had no evidence at all to support it, Owens’s habeas petition must be granted even under AEDPA’s demanding standard.