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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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