739 N.E.2d 649 (Ind. 2000), 02S00-9805-DP-293, Corcoran v. State

Docket Nº:02S00-9805-DP-293.
Citation:739 N.E.2d 649
Party Name:Joseph E. CORCORAN, Defendant-Appellant, v. STATE of Indiana, Plaintiff-Appellee.
Case Date:December 06, 2000
Court:Supreme Court of Indiana

Page 649

739 N.E.2d 649 (Ind. 2000)

Joseph E. CORCORAN, Defendant-Appellant,


STATE of Indiana, Plaintiff-Appellee.

No. 02S00-9805-DP-293.

Supreme Court of Indiana

December 6, 2000

Page 650

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 651

P. Stephen Miller, Fort Wayne, Indiana, John C. Bohdan, Glasser and Ebbs, Fort Wayne, Indiana, for appellant.

Karen M. Freeman-Wilson, Attorney General of Indiana, Priscilla J. Fossum, Deputy Attorney General, Indianapolis, Indiana, for appellee.

DICKSON, Justice.

A jury found the defendant, Joseph E. Corcoran, guilty of four counts of murder. 1 In the subsequent penalty phase, the jury recommended the death penalty, and the trial court ordered the death sentence imposed. Appealing from the trial court judgment, the defendant does not challenge the guilt phase proceedings or his resulting convictions. His appellate claims concern only the penalty and sentencing proceedings and his death sentence. 2 The defendant's appeal presents eight claims, which we rearrange as follows: (1) the Indiana death penalty statute violates the United States Constitution because a death sentence and a sentence of life without parole (LWOP) are governed by the same eligibility requirements; (2) the death penalty/LWOP statute is ambiguous and therefore must be construed against the state; (3) the selection phase of the death penalty/LWOP statute violates the federal and state constitutions as it permits the arbitrary imposition of the death penalty; (4) the death penalty/LWOP statute violates the Indiana Constitution's proportionality provision; (5) the death penalty/LWOP statute violates defendant's right to a jury trial because it allows the State to penalize its exercise; (6) the prosecutor committed misconduct in the closing argument during the penalty phase; (7) the judge improperly considered a non-statutory aggravator when sentencing; and (8) the death sentence in this case is manifestly unreasonable.

Constitutionality of the Death Penalty / Life Imprisonment Statute

In the first four claims enumerated above, the defendant contends that the Indiana capital sentencing statute facially violates the federal and Indiana constitutions because it permits the sentencer to impose a sentence of death or life imprisonment

Page 652

without parole based on the same aggravating circumstances.

First, the defendant contends that the eligibility provision of the Indiana sentencing system for the crime of murder violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, "because the Indiana legislature has not deemed any murder such an affront to society that the only appropriate penalty may be death." Brief of Appellant at 22. He argues that, because those persons eligible for the death penalty are also eligible for a sentence of life imprisonment without parole, the Indiana death penalty "constitutes nothing more than purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering." Id. at 37.

Second, the defendant contends that in the absence of mitigating circumstances, there is no basis under the Indiana system to decide between life imprisonment and the death penalty. He argues that this constitutes an ambiguity that must be strictly construed against the State. 3

Third, the defendant contends that the Indiana statute materially misguides the sentencer in the selection phase because it permits the sentencer to choose life imprisonment without parole because of retribution if the sentencer believes that death would be a more merciful sentence. He argues that this results in a potential for substantial unreliability and bias in favor of death sentences.

We address these claims together because we conclude that they are governed by the same principles. Indiana statutes prescribe that the penalty for the crime of murder may be either (a) a determinate term of imprisonment for forty-five to sixty-five years, (b) life imprisonment without parole, or (c) a death sentence. To be eligible for possible imposition of the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole, an offender must have committed a murder accompanied by at least one of several prescribed aggravating circumstances. IND.CODE § 35-50-2-9(b). Under the Indiana statutory scheme, the aggravating circumstances that make an offender eligible for the death penalty are the same that define eligibility for life without parole. If the State seeks the death penalty or life without parole, upon finding one of the prescribed aggravating circumstances proven beyond a reasonable doubt and finding mitigating circumstances outweighed by the aggravating circumstance(s), the trial court, after considering the recommendation of the jury, may impose a sentence of death or life imprisonment without parole.

The defendant contends that Indiana's death penalty statute is unconstitutional because it fails to delineate between those crimes for which the death penalty is proportional and all other murders and thus fails to reserve the death penalty for the most severe class of crimes. Citing Arave v. Creech, 507 U.S. 463, 474, 113 S.Ct. 1534, 1542, 123 L.Ed.2d 188, 200 (1993), he argues that this violates a requirement that a capital sentencing statutory scheme must provide a principled basis for differentiating those persons for whom the death penalty is appropriate from those for whom it is not.

In Arave, however, the issue was not whether the class of murderers eligible for the death penalty might alternatively be sentenced to imprisonment. The United States Supreme Court instead addressed whether an Idaho statutory aggravating circumstance that "the defendant exhibited

Page 653

an utter disregard for human life" adequately channeled sentencing discretion for imposition of a death sentence. 507 U.S. at 465, 113 S.Ct. at 1538, 123 L.Ed.2d at 194. The Court reasserted as a "fundamental principle" that:

to satisfy the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments, a capital sentencing scheme must suitably direct and limit the sentencer's discretion so as to minimize the risk of wholly arbitrary and capricious action. The State must channel the sentencer's discretion by clear and objective standards that provide specific and detailed guidance, and make rationally reviewable the process for imposing a sentence of death.

Id. at 470-71, 113 S.Ct. at 1540, 123 L.Ed.2d at 197-98 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

The Indiana capital sentencing scheme satisfies this requirement by prescribing particular aggravating circumstances that narrow the class of murderers eligible for the death penalty. Judy v. State, 275 Ind. 145, 416 N.E.2d 95, 105-08 (1981). We recognize that the Indiana capital sentencing statute "must 'genuinely narrow the class of persons eligible for the death penalty and must reasonably justify the imposition of a more severe sentence on the defendant compared to others found guilty of murder.' " Wrinkles v. State, 690 N.E.2d 1156, 1165 (Ind.1997) (quoting Zant v. Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 877, 103...

To continue reading