Duncan v. Owens

LII note: The U.S. Supreme Court has now decided Duncan v. Owens.


  1. What constitutes “clearly established Federal law” under section 2254(d) of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act?
  2. In a criminal bench trial, did an Illinois judge violate a clearly established constitutional right by referencing facts in his verdict that did not relate to an element of the crime but were not presented at trial?
Oral argument: 
January 12, 2016

In a November 2000 bench trial, the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois convicted Lawrence Owens of first-degree murder. In the trial judge’s verdict, the judge referenced facts not presented as evidence during the trial.The facts related to Owens’ motive for committing the crime, which is not an element of the offense under Illinois law. The Illinois State Appellate court affirmed the trial court’s verdict. The court found the trial judge’s comments “baseless” but harmless error because the prosecution presented sufficient eyewitness testimony to convict. Fifteen years later, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals granted Owens habeas corpus relief on the grounds that his due process rights were violated. The Seventh Circuit found that the trial court unconstitutionally convicted based on facts not in evidence. In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) precluded the Seventh Circuit from granting habeas relief. The AEDPA enables federal courts to hear habeas proceedings in which defendants allege that states violated their constitutional rights. However, section 2254(d) provides that courts cannot hear habeas proceedings unless the state court decision “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court.” Representing the state of Illinois, Stephen Duncan, warden of the Lawrence Correctional Center in Sumner, IL, contends that there was no clearly established federal law to apply to Owens’ case. But Owens argues that the Seventh Circuit accurately identified his constitutional right to be convicted based only on evidence presented at trial. The Court’s decision will affect the balance of power between state and federal courts, and the finality and validity of state court convictions.

Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties 

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?


On September 22, 1999, Ramon Nelson was killed while riding his bike away from a liquor store in Markham, Illinois. A person struck Nelson in the head with a “baseball bat (or something similar).” Two eyewitnesses initially identified Lawrence Owens as the killer. However, the eyewitnesses’ testimonies were inconsistent, and one of the eyewitnesses twice failed to correctly identify Owens in a photo array during trial.

Nelson had 40 small plastic bags of crack cocaine when he was killed. During the trial, the prosecution did not present any evidence that Owens knew Nelson, or that he was involved in illicit drug use or gang activity. The prosecution did not present any physical evidence tying Owens to the murder. Nonetheless, on November 8, 2000, the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, in a bench trial, found Owens guilty of first-degree murder. The judge summarily concluded that Owens knew Nelson was a drug dealer. The judge concluded that Owens’ motive for the murder was to “knock [Nelson] off.”

Owens appealed the conviction to the Illinois State Appellate Court, arguing that the “trial court made improper ‘extrajudicial’ findings regarding his motive and based its findings of guilt on evidence not produced at trial.” The state appellate court questioned the reliability of the eyewitness testimony in Owens’ case and found the trial judge’s statement regarding Owens’ motive to be erroneous and “baseless.” But the state appellate court affirmed Owens’ conviction, concluding that the judge’s statements were “harmless error” because the eyewitness testimony was sufficient to convict. The Illinois Supreme Court declined to hear Owens’ appeal.

Owens submitted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus to the Federal District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, which was denied. Section 2254(a) of Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (“AEDPA”) permits federal courts to hear habeas corpus proceedings in which defendants allege constitutional violations by state courts. However, section 2254(d) limits the courts’ authority to cases in which the state court decision was contrary to or an unreasonable interpretation of clearly established federal law.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Owens’ appeal warranted habeas relief. The Court of Appeals stated, “[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 Court of Appeals determined that such error was not harmless, because the evidence at trial was far from conclusive, and but for the trial judge’s mistaken belief about Owens’ motive, Owens might have been acquitted.

The Seventh Circuit acknowledged that reversal of a state court decision requires “clearly established violations of a defendant’s constitutional rights,” but stated that Owens’ right to be convicted only on the basis of evidence introduced at trial (the right to a fair trial) was such a right. The court ordered Illinois to retry Owens within 120 days or release him.

Habeas proceedings determine whether imprisonment is lawful, so the actions are usually filed against prison wardens. Following the Seventh Circuit’s decision, Stephen Duncan, the warden where Owens was imprisoned, filed a petition for writ of certiorari, which the U.S. Supreme Court granted on October 1, 2015.


Section 2254(d) of the AEDPA allows federal courts to grant habeas relief when “a court comes to a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States.” At bottom, the Court must decide between two competing interpretations of “clearly established Federal law.” Duncan argues that the Seventh Circuit wrongly granted habeas relief to Owens because no Supreme Court precedent “establishes that a defendant’s constitutional rights are violated when the trier of fact [i.e., the judge] draws an inference regarding a fact that is not an element of the crime.” But Owens contends the right to be convicted based on evidence in the record is clearly established.


Duncan contends that the Court’s “holdings, not its dicta,” are relevant to determining clearly established federal law. Duncan explains that the Court has admonished lower courts for extracting overly general principles from the Court’s holdings. Moreover, Duncan argues that the AEDPA prohibits lower courts from relying on their own precedent to determine what is clearly established law. Nevertheless, Duncan explains, the Seventh Circuit relied on two of its own cases, United States v. Moore and United States v. Garcia, to grant habeas relief. Duncan maintains that even if circuit precedent were relevant, the Seventh Circuit failed to identify precedent that established an applicable constitutional right. At most, Duncan explains, the Seventh Circuit identified a constitutional right that juries, not judges, consider only evidence in the record and not make unreasonable inferences from evidence presented.

Owens argues that the clearly-established standard “does not require showing . . . the Court has previously addressed a case with nearly identical facts.” Owens contends that generally applicable standards—like the right to be convicted on the basis of evidence in the record—are clearly established. . And Owens maintains that the Court has never denied habeas relief “with a fact scenario that squarely violates a constitutional right.” Furthermore, Owens contends that the Seventh Circuit identified clearly established federal law protecting criminal defendants’ due process rights not to be convicted based on evidence not in the record. Owens cites several Supreme Court cases, including Holbrook v. Flynn, Taylor v. Kentucky, and Estelle v. Williams, to demonstrate that “this is a bedrock principle of the criminal justice system.”


Duncan argues that no Supreme Court case found due process violations when triers of fact, like the judge, drew inferences regarding an element not part of the crime. Duncan contends that all of the cases regarding the constitutional right to be judged exclusively on evidence presented at trial involved jury trials. Duncan explains that these cases—Flynn, Taylor, and Estelle—concerned the jury’s exposure to “prejudicial and improper information,” which could have lead to improper guilt determinations. Duncan argues that the Seventh Circuit’s reliance on these cases disobeys the Court’s order not to “frame[] the issue at too high a level of generality.” Duncan maintains that Owen is challenging the judge’s thought process, and not his consideration of prejudicial factors, which was the subject of Flynn, Taylor, and Estelle. Duncan concludes that the Court should presume the judge properly applied the law in the absence of prejudicial factors.

Owens argues that the Court has repeatedly found that criminal defendants have a “constitutional right to be judged solely on the basis of proof adduced at trial.” Owens explains that a clear, unreasonable violation occurred when the trial court based its guilty verdict on supposed facts that are unsupported by the trial record. Owens concedes that motive is not a listed element of the offense, but contends that motive “is a means of proving who committed the murder,” which “is an element the state had to prove to convict.”


Duncan maintains that even if the Court finds that the lower court’s decision “conflicted with, or was an unreasonable application of” the Court’s precedent, Owens “would not be entitled to relief because any error was harmless.” Duncan contends that when a state court determines an error is harmless, habeas relief can be granted only after a showing that the harmlessness determination was itself “unreasonable. ” Duncan explains that a ruling is ‘unreasonable’ if it contains a legally definable error beyond any fair-minded disagreement or justification. Therefore, Duncan asserts that since this “highly deferential” AEDPA standard applies, the state appellate court’s determination can only be overturned where it is “lacking in justification that [is] beyond the possibility for any fairminded disagreement.” Further, Duncan argues that a federal court cannot grant habeas relief based on a lower court’s trial error unless “actual prejudice” occurred. . Duncan maintains that actual prejudice occurs only when the trial error was harmful beyond a “reasonable probability.” Finally, Duncan claims that habeas relief is warranted only where the federal court has serious concern that the error had “substantial and injurious effect or influence in determining the jury’s verdict.”

Owens argues that the state court’s determination of harmlessness was unreasonable and did result in actual prejudice. Owens claims that the state court erroneously applied the legal standard for “determining whether a constitutional error was harmless under Section 2254.” Owens states that the “substantial and injurious” standard takes “account of what the error meant to [the fact-finder], not singled out and standing alone, but in relation to all else that happened.” Therefore, Owens maintains that the state appellate court must assess the error’s effect upon the fact finder’s guilty verdict. Owens argues that the state court did not properly apply this principle. Owens further argues that the state appellate court’s determination of harmlessness was unreasonable because the court relied on the credibility of witnesses it did not see testify.


The Court’s decision in this case will impact the balance of federalism and the finality and validity of state court convictions. Duncan maintains that the judge’s inferring a motive does not violate Owen’s due process rights, because the Court has not said that a judge’s doing so is unconstitutional when motive is not an element of the crime. But Owens maintains that criminal defendants have the constitutional right to be convicted based only on evidence in the record.


In support of Duncan, Washington and 26 other states (collectively, “Washington et al.”) argue that Congress enacted the AEDPA to protect the finality of state court judgments. Washington et al. argues that the Court will violate AEDPA’s purpose if it grants Owens habeas relief. Washington et al. explains that during the twentieth century, federal courts frequently overturned state court habeas decisions, which the federal courts saw as persuasive but non-binding. In response to this trend, Washington et al. contends, “Congress enacted AEDPA . . . to . . . constrain[] [] expansive de novo review.” Under the AEDPA, Washington et al. maintains that federal courts must give state habeas decisions the highest deference, and cannot grant habeas relief because of mere prejudicial error. Washington et al. asserts that the AEDPA limits review to matters of “clearly established Federal law,” and that the Court’s own precedent prohibits reviewing courts from “grant[ing] relief based upon errors in [a judge’s] intrinsic reasoning.”

But Owens argues that habeas relief in this context is not contrary to the AEDPA’s purpose. Owens contends his case does not need facts identical to a previous decision of the Court, because a general standard from previous cases can serve as established law. Owens argues that otherwise “federal courts [would be] powerless to grant habeas relief in cases where a violation of a constitutional ‘general standard from th[e] Court’s cases,’ is flagrant, but a case with nearly identical facts has not yet reached th[e] Court.”


Washington et al. argues that the Seventh Circuit owed deference to the findings of the state appellate court. Washington et al. argues that the AEDPA requires federal courts to defer to state courts’ decisions whether a constitutional violation is harmless, unless it determines that “the harmlessness determination itself was unreasonable.” Washington et al. concludes that it is not enough that a state court be in error; the decision must be unreasonable.

Owens argues that the state appellate court’s finding of harmless error in and of itself was a violation of clearly established law. Owens maintains that the state appellate court was required to assess what effect the error had on the guilty verdict, that they failed to do so, and that such failure was a violation of clearly established federal law—and was unreasonable to boot.


The Court will consider how the AEDPA restricts federal courts’ power to grant habeas relief. Duncan argues that the trial judge’s error is not a due process violation under the Court’s precedent, and that AEDPA’s standard of review precludes overturning the state appellate court’s “harmless error” ruling. Owens counters that the trial court violated his constitutional right to be convicted solely on the evidence presented at trial, and further argues that he satisfied AEDPA’s “harmless error” standard. The Court’s ruling will affect the appeals of state court rulings in federal habeas corpus proceedings and the relationship between state and federal courts.

Edited by 


Additional Resources 

  • Oyez, Duncan v. Owens, Chicago-Kent College of Law at Illinois Tech (Dec. 21, 2015).