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7th Circuit sends Corcoran case back to trial court

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Following a remand from the United States Supreme Court in late 2010, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals admitted it made mistakes in its recent decision involving a convicted murderer’s appeal and sent the case to the District Court to address habeas relief claims.

This is the second time this case has been considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, and both times the justices reversed the 7th Circuit’s holding. The first time the case made it before the nation’s highest court, the justices vacated the 7th Circuit’s order that the District Court deny the writ for habeas relief, writing that the 7th Circuit should have allowed the District Court to consider Joseph Corcoran’s unresolved challenges to his death sentence on remand.

In the per curiam decision released Thursday in Joseph E. Corcoran v. Bill Wilson, superintendent, Nos. 07-2093, 07-2182, the 7th Circuit admitted to making “two critical misjudgments” – one procedural and one substantive. The procedural mistake was taking up Corcoran’s challenges for habeas relief that weren’t addressed earlier by the District Court instead of sending the case back to the lower court to address them. The District Court considered only two of Corcoran’s claims for relief and held the state courts had reasonably concluded Corcoran was competent to waive his state post-conviction remedies. The District Court also held the prosecutor violated the Sixth Amendment by offering to forgo the death penalty if Corcoran would waive his right to a jury trial. It granted habeas relief on the Sixth Amendment claim and ordered Corcoran re-sentenced to anything but to death.

The judges said this procedural misstep led to the substantive error, which the U.S. Supreme Court pointed out in its November 2010 decision: Federal courts can’t issue any writ of habeas corpus to state prisoners whose confinements don’t violate U.S. law.

Corcoran was convicted of killing four men in 1997 and was sentenced to death. He appealed and initially waived state post-conviction relief after he was found competent to forego further challenges to his sentence. He later changed his mind and tried to file for a petition for post-conviction relief, and that’s when the case moved to federal court.

The Circuit Court reinstated and incorporated by reference its earlier opinion in Corcoran v. Buss to the extent that it reversed the District Court’s judgment granting habeas relief on the basis of the claimed Sixth Amendment violation; and it affirmed the District Court’s conclusion that the Indiana courts did not mishandle the issue of Corcoran’s competence to waive post-conviction remedies. The court also reinstated Judge Ann Claire Williams’ dissent regarding the competency issue.

The case will now be before U.S. Judge Jon DeGuilio, who replaced the late Judge Allen Sharp, to address Corcoran’s remaining grounds for habeas relief.

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