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SCOTUS remands Indiana death penalty case

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The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals was wrong in disposing of an Indiana man's death penalty challenges without any explanation, and should have allowed a Northern District of Indiana judge to consider those unresolved claims, the nation's highest court ruled today.

In a two-page per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari and vacated the December 2008 ruling by the 7th Circuit in Joseph E. Corcoran v. Mark Levenhagen, Superintendent, Indiana State Prison, No. 08-10495, which comes out of the Northern District of Indiana after a line of litigation from the state appellate courts during the past decade.

The main issue in the case has been whether Joseph Corcoran, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, was mentally competent when he waived his right to have a trial court review his case, and whether his constitutional rights were violated when the prosecutor offered to take the death penalty off the table if Corcoran agreed to a bench trial rather than a jury trial in the 1997 shooting deaths of four people.

Allen Superior Judge Fran Gull found Corcoran competent when he decided to bypass the trial court review of his case, and the Indiana Supreme Court ultimately upheld that decision a decade ago. But Corcoran changed his mind in early 2005, and tried unsuccessfully to seek a trial court review of his case. He filed a habeas petition in federal court, but later changed his mind again, saying he never wanted to appeal his sentence.

Against Corcoran's wishes, 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. On appeal, the 7th Circuit panel on Dec. 31, 2008, ruled that Corcoran's rights weren't violated and he was competent to waive his post-conviction proceedings. The court reversed the judge's granting of habeas relief, and ruled that Indiana was at liberty to reinstate the death penalty.

In recapping the appellate history, the SCOTUS order granted certiorari and held that the 7th Circuit erred in disposing of Corcoran's other claims without explanation of any sort.

"The Seventh Circuit should have permitted the District Court to consider Corcoran's unresolved challenges to his death sentence on remand, or should have itself explained why such consideration was unnecessary," the court wrote. "In its brief in opposition, the State argues that Corcoran's claims were waived, and that they were in any event frivolous, so that a remand would be wasteful. Nothing in the Seventh Circuit's opinion, however, suggests that this was the basis for that court's order that the writ be denied."

The case is now remanded to the Northern District for further proceedings.

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