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Corcoran v. Neal

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

April 14, 2015

JOSEPH E. CORCORAN, Petitioner-Appellant,
RON NEAL, Superintendent, [*] Respondent-Appellee

Argued: November 5, 2013.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. No. 3:05-CV-389 JD -- Jon E. DeGuilio, Judge.

For Joseph E. Corcoran, Petitioner - Appellan: Alan Michael Freedman, Attorney, Midwest Center For Justice, Ltd., Evanston, IL; Laurence E. Komp, Attorney, Manchester, MO.

For RON NEAL, Superintendent, Indiana State Prison, Respondent - Appellee: Stephen R. Creason, Attorney, James Blaine Martin, Attorney, Office of The Attorney General, Indianapolis, IN.

Before BAUER, WILLIAMS, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.


Page 677

SYKES, Circuit Judge.

In 1997 Joseph Corcoran shot and killed four men at his home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. A jury convicted him of four counts of murder and recommended the death penalty. The trial judge agreed and imposed a death sentence in accordance with the jury's recommendation.

After his appeals in state court had run their course, Corcoran sought federal habeas relief on multiple grounds. We resolved some of his claims in earlier opinions and Corcoran has abandoned others; only two issues remain. Corcoran argues that the trial judge impermissibly relied on nonstatutory aggravating factors and failed to consider mitigating evidence when deciding whether to impose the death penalty. In a thorough opinion, the district court rejected these claims and denied the writ.

We affirm. First, the Indiana Supreme Court held that the trial judge did not in fact rely on nonstatutory aggravating factors. We previously disagreed with that determination, but our earlier decision--now vacated--did not adequately grapple with the deference owed to state-court factual findings under the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (" AEDPA" ), 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(2). Giving the matter a fresh look through the lens of AEDPA's deferential standard of review, we now conclude that the state supreme court's factual determination was not unreasonable.

Second, the Indiana Supreme Court reasonably determined that the trial judge considered all proffered evidence in mitigation. The sentencer's obligation to consider mitigating evidence in a capital case does not require that the evidence be credited

Page 678

or given any particular weight in the final sentencing decision.

I. Background

This case has a long and complex history in state and federal court, most of which is not relevant here and can be found in our earlier opinions. See Corcoran v. Wilson (" Corcoran XI " ), 651 F.3d 611 (7th Cir. 2011); Corcoran v. Levenhagen (" Corcoran IX " ), 593 F.3d 547 (7th Cir. 2010) ; and Corcoran v. Buss (" Corcoran VII " ), 551 F.3d 703 (7th Cir. 2008). We will repeat the facts and procedural history only as necessary to resolve the remaining claims.

On the evening of July 26, 1997, Corcoran was in his bedroom in the Fort Wayne home he shared with his sister when he heard men talking downstairs and became angry because he thought they were talking about him. He loaded his rifle and went downstairs to confront them. In the living room, he found his brother Jim Corcoran; their sister's fiancé, Scott Turner; and two of Jim's friends, Timothy Bricker and Doug Stillwell. Corcoran shot the first three men at close range, killing them. Stillwell tried to escape, but Corcoran chased him into the kitchen and killed him too with a shot to the back of the head.

Corcoran was charged in state court with four counts of murder. Indiana sought the death penalty based on the statutory aggravating circumstance of multiple murders. See Ind. Code § 35-50-2-9(b)(7)--(8) (1997).[1]

Under Indiana's death-penalty statute, if the defendant is found guilty, the jury hears evidence in the penalty phase of trial and can recommend " the death penalty, or life imprisonment without parole, or neither." Id. § 35-50-2-9(e). Before recommending death, the jury must find two things: (1) the prosecution has proved beyond a reasonable doubt one or more of the aggravating circumstances listed in the statute; and (2) " any mitigating circumstances that exist are outweighed by the aggravating circumstance or circumstances." Id. § 35-50-2-9(k)(2). At the time of these crimes, the jury's weighing of the aggravating and mitigating circumstances was not binding on the trial judge; the statute then in effect provided that " [t]he court shall make the final determination of the sentence, after considering the jury's recommendation, and the sentence shall be based on the same standards that the jury was required to consider." § 35-50-2-9(e).[2]

So in 1997 (as now) the statutory aggravating factors serve to limit the sentencer's initial determination of death eligibility and the weighing process that determines whether the death penalty is imposed. See Corcoran v. State (" Corcoran I " ), 739 N.E.2d 649, 655 (Ind. 2000). This makes Indiana a so-called " weighing" state. See Brown v. Sanders, 546 U.S. 212, 217, 126 S.Ct. 884, 163 L.Ed.2d 723 (2006) (" We identified as [weighing states] those in which the only aggravating factors permitted to be considered by the sentencer were the specified

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eligibility factors." ); Hough v. Anderson, 272 F.3d 878, 904-05 (7th Cir. 2001) (describing the difference between weighing and nonweighing states).

The jury found Corcoran guilty and recommended the death penalty. The trial judge agreed and imposed a death sentence, announcing her findings both orally and in a written sentencing order. Combining the judge's oral and written statements, the court made the following findings.

First, the judge assigned " high weight" to the multiple murders as aggravating circumstances. She then addressed the ten mitigating circumstances Corcoran's counsel had proposed, ultimately rejecting six and finding four proven.

More specifically, the judge found that the following circumstances were proven and deserved weight as mitigators: (1) Corcoran was under the influence of a mental or emotional disturbance at the time of the crimes (a personality disorder, though the experts did not agree about how to classify it); (2) Corcoran cooperated with the authorities during the investigation; (3) he had a limited criminal history; and (4) he was genuinely remorseful for the crimes. The judge gave the first of these factors " medium weight." The other three, she said, deserved only " low weight."

The judge rejected the other mitigating factors proffered by the defense. Two related to Corcoran's mental capacity. Counsel argued that Corcoran's mental disorder impaired his ability to appreciate the criminality of his conduct, thus diminishing his culpability. The judge rejected this argument based largely on the testimony of several doctors who examined Corcoran for competency and also for a possible insanity defense. The judge characterized the expert evidence as " ambiguous" because the doctors could not agree on how to diagnose Corcoran's personality disorder. She also noted that Corcoran had called the police after the murders and kept his young niece away from the crime scene (she was in the home at the time of the crimes). The judge thought these actions demonstrated that Corcoran knew right from wrong and did not deserve mitigation credit for reduced culpability due to mental disease or defect.

For similar reasons, the judge was also unpersuaded by Corcoran's argument that his ability to competently assist in his own defense was compromised by mental illness. This argument focused on the fact that he had rejected a favorable plea bargain. The judge emphasized that Corcoran was assisted by capable counsel and had competently chosen to exercise his right to a trial.

The judge then considered and quickly rejected the remaining mitigators proposed by the defense. Counsel argued that Corcoran had continually admitted his guilt through all stages of the legal process. That was not true; Corcoran stood on his pleas of not guilty and went to trial. Counsel also argued that Corcoran deserved mitigation credit for behaving well in jail. The judge disagreed, noting that Corcoran had two conduct reports, and besides, good behavior is expected of prisoners. Counsel argued that Corcoran's act of shielding his niece from the trauma of seeing four dead bodies deserved weight as a mitigating factor. The judge was not persuaded that keeping the girl away from the gruesome crime scene was evidence of good character. Finally, counsel urged the court to treat ...

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