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7th Circuit affirms writ of habeas corpus

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On remand from the Supreme Court of the United States, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court's conditional grant of the petition for a writ of habeas corpus for a man facing the death penalty.

The SCOTUS found the 7th Circuit was wrong to dispose of Joseph Corcoran's death penalty challenges without any explanation and vacated the December 2008 ruling by the Circuit Court. Corcoran was sentenced to death for killing four people in 1997.

U.S. District Judge Allen Sharp in South Bend overturned Corcoran's death sentence in April 2007 and found the prosecutor inappropriately punished the man by pursuing the death penalty after Corcoran had declined to accept a bench trial and chose to have a jury hear his case.

The District Court granted the petition and ordered the state to re-sentence him within 120 days to anything but death. The 7th Circuit upheld his death sentence in December 2008, ruling the sentence didn't violate his jury trial rights under the Sixth Amendment and that he was competent to waive post-conviction proceedings. The Circuit Court reversed the judge's granting of habeas relief, and ruled that Indiana was at liberty to reinstate the death penalty.

That decision in 2008 omitted discussion of Corcoran's four other challenges he raised in District Court - the Indiana trial court improperly considered non-statutory aggravating circumstances and failed to consider six mitigating circumstances; the state's capital sentencing statute was unconstitutional; the prosecution committed misconduct in closing arguments; and he shouldn't be executed because he suffers from a mental illness.

In Joseph E. Corcoran v. Mark Levenhagen, superintendent, Nos. 07-2093, 07-2182, the Circuit Court examined those four challenges and found all of his remaining habeas challenges are waived and three of those are frivolous. However, the 7th Circuit found Corcoran's challenge regarding the use of non-statutory aggravating circumstances entitled him to a new sentencing hearing.

Corcoran claimed that the Indiana trial court considered non-statutory aggravating circumstances, such as his future dangerousness and his victims' innocence, in contravention of state law. The trial court stated it relied only on proven statutory aggravators, which the Indiana Supreme Court upheld.

The trial court added weight to a statutory aggravator based on the non-statutory aggravators, wrote Judge William J. Bauer.

"And factor weighting is part of factor 'balancing,' the very process in which the trial court disclaimed reliance on non-statutory aggravators," he continued.

The Circuit judges found this to be an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the trial court's proceedings and warranted habeas relief. The judges also noted Indiana could adopt a rule that would allow them to use non-statutory aggravators in the death sentence selection process.

The trial court must also consider Corcoran's age at the time of the murders as a mitigating factor in order to cure a different fact-finding error by the Indiana Supreme Court. At no time did the trial court offer an explanation for rejecting his age as non-mitigatory, as was required by Indiana law, wrote Judge Bauer.

"Thus, the Indiana Supreme Court's finding of fact, that the trial court 'analyzed' and 'rejected' Corcoran's age in its sentencing order, was obviously in error, because the sentencing order makes no mention of Corcoran's age except to note that Corcoran proffered it as a mitigator," he continued.

In fact, the Indiana Supreme Court failed to cure this oversight by itself in evaluating his age as a mitigator. The state's highest court had weighted his age under an abuse-of-discretion standard instead of the more searching standard required under Indiana law, wrote Judge Bauer.

The Circuit Court modified the order of the District Court's conditional grant for a writ of habeas corpus to grant the writ unless within 120 days the state court holds a new sentencing hearing in accordance with the opinion.

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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