Joseph Corcoran, who has been sentenced to death for killing four men in 1997, will be allowed to appeal the denial of his petition for habeas corpus to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
U.S. Judge Jon DeGuilio in the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division, granted a certificate of appealability on one of the grounds Corcoran raised for relief. DeGuilio, who received Corcoran’s case from the 7th Circuit on remand, denied Corcoran’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus in January.
Corcoran’s case has made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States twice and both times the justices reversed the 7th Circuit’s holdings. The first time, 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 Corcoran’s unresolved challenges to his death sentence on remand.
In November 2010, the SCOTUS reiterated that federal courts can’t issue any writ of habeas corpus to state prisoners whose confinements do not violate U.S. law.
Corcoran was sentenced to death in 1999, but the Indiana Supreme Court vacated the sentence and remanded out of concern that the trial judge 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. Judge Allen Sharp reversed Corcoran’s death sentence, which the 7th Circuit reinstated in 2008.
On March 27, DeGuilio granted the certificate of appealability pertaining to Corcoran’s allegations that the trial court relied on non-statutory factors in a way that violated the federal constitution, and that the trial court refused to consider mitigating evidence.
“The first sub-issue essentially hinges on interpreting the trial court’s written statement, contained in the amended sentencing order, that it did not rely on non-statutory factors. This court concluded that the Indiana Supreme Court’s decision to take the trial court at its word was reasonable, but, as with any question of ‘reasonableness,’ other jurists might well disagree, or at least find that there is room for debate,” DeGuilio wrote.
“The second sub-issue essentially hinges on the distinction between refusing to consider mitigating evidence, and refusing to consider evidence to be mitigating. It is more than a word game – the former is prohibited by law, but the latter is perfectly acceptable. Nonetheless, it is a fine distinction, and while this court interpreted the trial court’s actions to fall into the later category, a reasonable jurist might find room for debate.”
DeGuilio noted that Corcoran hadn’t asked for a certificate of appealability with respect to his challenge of the constitutionality of the Indiana sentencing statute itself, which the judge would not have granted because the statute is “clearly constitutional.”