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SCOTUS reverses 7th Circuit a second time on capital case

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An Indiana case has prompted the nation’s highest court to reiterate that federal courts can’t issue any writ of habeas corpus to state prisoners whose confinements do not violate U.S. law.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals tried that when it second-guessed the Indiana Supreme Court on a death penalty case, but the Supreme Court of the United States has shaken its proverbial finger on this litigation that’s jumped between state and federal courts through the years.

In its seven-page per curiam decision today in Bill K. Wilson, Superintendent, Indiana State Prison v. Joseph E. Corcoran, No. 10-91, the court overturned a 7th Circuit ruling from earlier this year that was based on a perceived flaw in how the Indiana Supreme Court decided the capital case.

“But it is only noncompliance with federal law that renders a State’s criminal judgment susceptible to collateral attack in the federal courts,” the opinion says.

This is the second time the SCOTUS has reversed the 7th Circuit on this case after finding that the appellate court wrongly dismissed the death penalty imposed for the four murders in 1997. Corcoran was convicted and sentenced to die in 1999, but the Indiana Supreme Court vacated that sentence and remanded it out of concern the Allen Superior judge had violated state law by partly relying on non-statutory aggravating factors when imposing the death penalty. The trial judge issued a revised sentencing order and the state justices in 2002 found that was sufficient to affirm the sentence. They later denied any post-conviction relief and Corcoran turned to the federal court system.

The late U.S. District Judge Allen Sharp overturned the death penalty against Corcoran’s wishes based on a Sixth Amendment violation regarding state law. Judge Sharp didn’t address any of Corcoran’s other claims on appeal. The 7th Circuit reinstated that sentence in December 2008 and ordered the federal court to deny the writ. The SCOTUS reversed that holding last year, finding that the 7th Circuit should have allowed those other remaining claims to be considered. The 7th Circuit in January granted habeas relief and ordered a full re-sentencing.

But now, the SCOTUS reverses that ruling. The justices made it clear they weren’t expressing any view on the merits of the habeas petition.

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