Did the Seventh Circuit violate 28 U.S.C. § 2254 and a long line of this Court’s decisions by awarding habeas relief in the absence of clearly established precedent from this Court?
Owens was convicted of murder at a court trial. Owens challenged the decision to convict him, arguing that the judge at his bench trial made improper “extrajudicial” findings regarding his motive and thus found him guilty based on evidence not produced at trial. This, he said, denied him due process because “one accused of a crime is entitled to have his guilt or innocence determined solely on the basis of evidence introduced at trial.” Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 485 (1978).
The state appellate court upheld respondent’s conviction, holding that the trial court’s speculation regarding motive was harmless. The Seventh Circuit overturned respondent’s conviction on habeas corpus review, finding that the trial court’s inference about motive violated respondent’s right to have his guilt adjudicated solely on the evidence introduced at trial, and that the error was not harmless. Judge Posner (in a unanimous opinion) summed up the problem:
[A]t the end of parties’ closing arguments the judge said: “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 [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.” That was all the judge said in explanation of his verdict, and it was nonsense. No evidence had been presented that Owens knew that Nelson was a drug dealer or that he wanted to kill him (we assume that by “knock him off” the judge meant “kill him”), or even knew him—a kid on a bike. Slip op. at 4-5.
The state filed a cert petition, claiming no clearly established precedent of the Supreme Court holds that it violates the Constitution for a finder of fact to infer a criminal defendant’s motive when the motive is a non-element of the offense and is not directly established by the evidence at trial. The Seventh Circuit is well aware of this rule—it’s cited on page 9 of the slip opinion. We’ll now see if they were right that relief in this case is proper under the more general rule articulated in Taylor and similar precedent.