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Best Served Really, Really Cold

In 1999, Ramon Nelson was riding his bicycle away from a liquor store when someone hit him in the back of the head with a wooden stick, killing him. He had forty little baggies of crack on him when he died.

Although it was dark out at the time, a guy named Maurice Johnnie identified a guy named Lawrence Owens as the murderer, first in a six-person photo lineup and then in an actual lineup. Lawrence Owens was the only person from the first lineup who also appeared in the second.

A guy named William Evans said there were two people involved in the murder, but he identified Lawrence Owens as one of them in the same two lineups Maurice Johnnie saw. He said the victim spoke with the two guys who killed him beforehand, though, something Maurice Johnnie never mentioned. William Evans was promised probation on two drug charges for his statements against Lawrence Owens, though he failed to identify him in a photo lineup at trial on two occasions.

There was no evidence that Lawrence Owens had any connection to the victim or any involvement with drugs or gangs. There was also no physical evidence linking him to the murder either. Authorities charged Lawrence Owens with murder.

For some reason I can’t possibly fathom, Lawrence Owens ended up having a bench trial (a trial to a judge) rather than a jury trial. The evidence presented was entirely limited to what I just described, yet the judge inexplicably stated the following:

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. Larry Owens wanted to knock him off. I think the State’s evidence has proved that fact. Finding of guilty of murder.

You have a murder. You have two guys who said a guy did the murder, but who are highly suspect and tell different stories. You have no other evidence. The judge heard the scant evidence and said, after no evidence being presented about the defendant whatsoever, that the defendant is a rat bastard piece of shit who knew the victim was a drug dealer and wanted him killed, so the asshole is clearly guilty.

Imagine it was a sex crime where the victim identified the defendant in a photo lineup and then again in a real lineup where he was the only guy who appeared in both. The victim was inconsistent though, and there were some big problems with the identification in the first place. Despite there being no other evidence, however, the judge makes the following finding:

I think the victim skirted the real issue. The issue to me was you have a girl who was a tease, and the defendant knew she was that way. The defendant wanted to have his way with her. I think the State’s evidence has proved that fact. Finding of guilty of sexual assault.

There was no more evidence supporting the finding in my example than there was of Lawrence Owens’s knowledge of Ramon Nelson’s drug dealing or desire to see him dead, so hopefully you’re starting to see the real problem.

There might be evidence sufficient to convince someone of the defendant’s guilt in each example, but the real judge and my fictitious judge each expressly say they do not premise their findings on actual evidence. Instead, they know the defendants’ guilt because of things they have absolutely no freaking reason on earth to believe are true.

Do you see the problem now? The judge convicted Lawrence Owens based on evidence that did not exist. There is no doubt about that, really. So what did the courts do?

The state appellate court agreed the judge made up facts to find Lawrence Owens guilty, but said that was fine because someone said he was guilty and that was enough to convict him even if the reason the judge actually cited was complete bullshit. The federal district court was fine with everything too. Only when it got to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit did the court finally take into account a few important points:

[T]here was no factual basis of any sort, in the trial record or elsewhere, 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.

The trial judge hadn’t actually said that he’d considered only evidence not in the trial record, but the only ground for his finding Owens guilty that he mentioned had no basis in that record (or elsewhere for that matter).

That was all the judge said in explanation of his verdict, and it was nonsense.

As courts are prone to do, after determining a decision in the state’s favor is completely fucked up, they then asked if the constitution actually disapproves of the fuck-up:

It remains to consider whether the judge’s blunder satisfies the test for whether a state court’s error, though of constitutional magnitude (in this case, because the judge based a verdict of guilty on ungrounded conjecture), can escape being deemed “harmless” when challenged in a federal habeas corpus proceeding.

The appellate court decided it did and finally reversed, using all sorts of great language to describe what the trial court did in the process. It’s not every day you see words like “nonsense” and “blunder” and “no evidentiary basis whatsoever” thrown around to describe a lower court’s ruling. It may be important to consider, however, that the trial court judge here is dead. It might make for awkward moments at judicial conferences otherwise, right?

And Lawrence Owens? The state has 120 days from the date of the decision in which to decide whether to retry him, and he’s only spent fourteen years in custody waiting for a court to figure out there was a problem.

Perhaps justice, like revenge, is a dish best served cold. Really, really cold.

Just ask Lawrence Owens.

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3 Responses to "Best Served Really, Really Cold"

  1. Rayray says:

    OT: the mouseover texts on the blog links are a bit off. They seem to imply Rick Horowitz is a criminal, and that Scott Greenfield is a blogcriminal.

    1. Matt Brown says:

      Ha! You’re right, and I’ll try to fix it.

  2. […] Tempe Criminal Defense, Matt Brown writes of the conviction of Lawrence Owens for the murder of a kid on bike carrying a […]

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