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Appeals court judge overturns ‘nonsense’ murder conviction

Calling a Cook County judge’s ruling “nonsense” and saying it was based on zero evidence, a federal appeals court has overturned the murder conviction of a man who’s already spent 14 years in prison.

A damning ruling by the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals gives the state 120 days to retry Lawrence Owens or set him free.

Owens, 42, has been locked up since he was convicted by the late Cook County Judge Joseph M. Macellaio of the brutal murder of drug dealer Ramon Nelson at a 2000 bench trial.

Nelson was bludgeoned to death with a wooden stick while riding his bike away from a liquor store in Markham in 1999. He had 40 small plastic bags of cocaine in his coat when he was killed.

But there was no evidence that Owens knew the victim, used or sold drugs or had any gang affiliation, U.S. Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner wrote in an opinion published late Monday.

“The judge made it up,” Posner wrote.

“Also absent was any physical evidence pointing to Owens as the murderer.

“It is highly uncertain whether the judge thought that any of the evidence that had been presented sufficed to dispel reasonable doubt of Owens’ guilt,” the ruling states.

Announcing the verdict, Macellaio had said “the issue” was that Owens knew Nelson 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,’” Macellaio told the court.

Posner called that a serious mistake.

“That was all the judge said in explanation of his verdict, and it was nonsense,” Posner wrote. “No evidence has been presented that Owens knew that Nelson was a drug dealer or that he wanted to kill, or even knew him — a kid on a bike.”

Posner wrote that the judge “appears to have been thoroughly confused,” as were prosecutors for inferring that Owens killed Nelson for drug-related reasons, since Nelson had drugs on him at the time of his death.

Identification also appeared to be an issue in the case, according to the opinion. One of two eyewitnesses identified Owens in a photo array and lineup, but at trial, identified someone else, even though Owens was in the courtroom.

That man, according to Posner’s opinion, was promised probation on two drug charges in exchange for his testimony.

Lawyers appointed by the appellate court to represent Owens had no comment on Tuesday.

A spokeswoman for the Cook County state’s attorney — which prosecuted Owens — said the Illinois Attorney General’s office is reviewing the decision.

Owens remains locked up at the downstate Lawrence Correctional Center.