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Guilty verdict can’t be based on factual conclusion without evidentiary support

Lawrence Owens v. Stephen Duncan, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Case No. 14-1419, 3/23/15, cert. petition granted, 10/1/15; petition dismissed as improvidently granted, 1/20/16

The Seventh Circuit grants habeas relief to Owens, who was convicted of murder after a bench trial, because the trial judge’s finding of guilt was based on evidence that did not exist and thus denied Owens’s right to due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, Holbrook v. Flynn, 475 U.S. 560, 567 (1986) (“one accused of a crime is entitled to have his guilt or innocence determined solely on the basis of the evidence introduced at trial,” quoting Taylor v. Kentucky, 436 U.S. 478, 485 (1978)).

At Owens’s trial for murdering Ramon Nelson, the State produced two eyewitnesses who identified Owens as the shooter, though their testimony was far from compelling: They didn’t relate consistent versions of events, their pre-trial identifications were marred by an imperfect identification procedure, and, at trial, one of them pointed out someone other than Owens from a photo array. There was no physical evidence (such as fingerprints on the weapon) pointing to Owens as the murderer. And, Nelson had drugs packaged for retail sale on his person, but there was no evidence that Owens knew Nelson, used or sold illegal drugs, or had any gang affiliation. (Slip op. at 2-3).

When the judge delivered his verdict, he said 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.” (Slip op. at 4). The court of appeals doesn’t sugar coat its view of this reasoning:

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. The prosecutor had said in his closing argument that the case “boils down to identification …, how they identified him and where … and in this case identification equals recognition.” The judge seems not to have been convinced, for he said nothing to suggest that he thought the real issue in the case was identification. If one may judge from what he said, which is the only evidence of what he thought, he thought that Owens’[s] knowledge that Nelson was a drug dealer was the fact that dispelled reasonable doubt of Owens’[s] guilt. Otherwise, why would he have called the existence of this fact the “real issue” in the case—the basis therefore of the verdict? (Slip op. at 4-5).

On Owens’s direct appeal the state court agreed there was no evidence supporting the judge’s rationale for the guilty verdict, but held the error was harmless because the identification evidence was sufficient to establish Owens’s guilt. (Slip op. at 5-6). The Seventh Circuit agrees that if the evidence of Owens’ guilt had been overwhelming, the judge’s conjectures “could be disregarded as goofy but harmless. But evidence of Owens’[s] guilt was not overwhelming.” (Slip op. at 8).

For purposes of this habeas proceeding, though, the question is whether the state court’s constitutional error—convicting Owens based on ungrounded conjecture—was prejudicial under Brecht v. Abrahamson, 507 U.S. 619, 637 (1993), which asks whether the error had “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the … verdict. Under this standard, habeas petitioners may obtain plenary review of their constitutional claims, but they are not entitled to habeas relief based on trial error unless they can establish that it resulted in actual prejudice.” The court holds Owens meets this test:

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. As we explained in Jones v. Basinger, 635 F.3d 1030, 1053–54 (7th Cir. 2011), the question that Brecht requires us to answer is not whether a reasonable trier of fact could have rendered the verdict that it (in this case he) did, but whether the trier of fact committed an error that had a substantial malign influence on the verdict. The trial judge’s singling out as the only explanation for the verdict a “fact” having no evidentiary support, and declaring it the “real issue” in resolving the case, had to have had such an influence. (Slip op. at 9).

Because this is a habeas case and it is granting relief, the court notes it is “mindful” that only “clearly established” violations of a constitutional right are entitled to habeas relief, and it points to Holbrook and Taylor for support that the right to be found guilty based on evidence, rather than conjecture, is clearly established. And, the court says, “[i]t’s true that we know of no case identical to this one—unsurprisingly, given the combination of weak proof with a verdict based on groundless conjecture. But identity can’t be required. The Supreme Court has made clear in the cases we’ve cited and quoted from that a judge or a jury may not convict a person on the basis of a belief that has no evidentiary basis whatsoever.” (Slip op. at 9-10).

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