Corcoran v. Buss, CAUSE NO. 3:05-CV-389 JD

CourtUnited States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Indiana
Writing for the CourtJON E. DEGUILIO
PartiesJOSEPH EDWARD CORCORAN, Petitioner, v. ED BUSS, Respondent.
Docket NumberCAUSE NO. 3:05-CV-389 JD
Decision Date10 January 2013

ED BUSS, Respondent.

CAUSE NO. 3:05-CV-389 JD


ENTERED: January 10, 2013


In 1997, Joseph Corcoran shot and killed four men, including his brother and his sister's fiancé. An Indiana jury found him guilty of four counts of murder, found the statutory aggravating circumstance of multiple murders, and unanimously recommended the death penalty. The trial judge agreed and sentenced Corcoran to death. Since then, Corcoran's case has gone before the Indiana Supreme Court a total of five times between direct appeals and proceedings related to collateral review.1 It has also been heard, on his petition for a writ of habeas corpus, by this court once; by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals three times; and by the United States Supreme Court twice.2 The petition is now before this court a second time, on remand from the Seventh Circuit for resolution of the remaining claims.

Corcoran's petition for habeas corpus initially argued eight grounds for relief, but only two

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are still contested: Ground Two and Ground Three. In Ground Two, Corcoran claims that in imposing the death penalty the trial court improperly considered non-statutory aggravating circumstances and failed to consider mitigating evidence, all in violation of the petitioner's constitutional rights as secured by the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. In Ground Three, Corcoran claims that Indiana's Death Penalty Statute is facially unconstitutional because it does not distinguish between circumstances that warrant a sentence of death and circumstances that warrant a sentence of life imprisonment without parole ("LWOP"). Both claims were adjudicated on the merits by the Indiana Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the State. Because Corcoran has not made a showing of error under the requirements set out at 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), his petition for a writ of habeas corpus must be denied.


On July 26, 1997, Corcoran was lying on his bedroom floor and heard men's voices. He became upset because he thought the men were talking about him and took a semi-automatic rifle downstairs to confront them. In the living room were four men, including Corcoran's brother and future brother-in-law, both of whom lived in the house with Corcoran.
Corcoran shot and killed Jim Corcoran, Scott Turner and Timothy Bricker at close range. The final victim, Doug Stillwell, tried to escape, but Corcoran chased him into the kitchen and shot him in the head.

Corcoran v. State, 774 N.E.2d 495, 501 (Ind. 2002). Corcoran would later explain that he was under stress because his sister's upcoming marriage would necessitate his moving out of the house. See id. at 497. When he loaded his rifle to confront the four men, he only intended to intimidate them. But, "it just didn't happen that way." Id. In its first opinion in this case, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals accurately summarized trial and appellate proceedings prior to their taking jurisdiction:

After Corcoran was indicted for four counts of murder under IND. CODE § 35-42-1-1, the State and Corcoran participated in extensive negotiations regarding the

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possibility of a plea agreement. The State made two offers: (1) a sentence of life without the possibility of parole in exchange for a plea of guilty, or (2) the dismissal of a request for the death penalty in exchange for Corcoran's agreement to proceed by bench trial instead of jury trial. Corcoran was advised by his counsel (during "several hundred" hours of meetings) that the offers were in his best interest for a number of reasons: (1) Corcoran had made a videotaped confession of the crimes; (2) his confession matched the physical evidence at the crime scene; (3) two of the three court-ordered psychiatrists that evaluated Corcoran concluded that he was competent to stand trial and to aid in his defense; and (4) defense counsel planned to present no defense at trial. Corcoran could not give a specific reason why he was unwilling to accept either offer, stating "I just feel like I should go to trial," and that he could not explain why.3 Negotiations lasted for approximately nine months, after which the State withdrew its offers and filed four applications for the death penalty.
Before trial, defense counsel gave notice to the court that an insanity defense would be asserted; after court-appointed doctors examined Corcoran and concluded that he was [not insane], defense counsel withdrew its claims. A jury found Corcoran guilty and recommended the death penalty. On August 26, 1999, the district court [sic] sentenced Corcoran to death.4
On direct appeal, Corcoran filed a written waiver of his right to appeal his convictions and challenged only his death sentence. [Along with] six claims that alleged the Indiana Death Penalty statute violated his state and federal constitutional rights, Corcoran argued that the [State's offer to withdraw its request for a death penalty in exchange for Corcoran's waiver of a jury trial] . . . sought "to force [Corcoran] to abdicate a basic right," when the State actually believed that life imprisonment was the appropriate penalty. Corcoran v. State, 739 N.E.2d 649, 654 (Ind. 2000) ("Corcoran I"). The Indiana Supreme Court rejected all of Corcoran's arguments and upheld Indiana's Death Penalty statute as it applied to him. Id.

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In addressing Corcoran's argument that his right to a jury trial was violated, the court emphasized that, under Bordenkircher v. Hayes, 434 U.S. 357, 98 S.Ct. 663, 54 L.Ed.2d 604 (1978), although constitutional limits do apply, the discretionary power of a prosecutor to offer plea bargains is wide. The court found that in the context of plea bargaining, there is no material distinction [between the use of that discretion] to agree to a lesser sentence in exchange for a guilty plea or [in exchange] for a bench trial. Corcoran I, at 654. However, the court vacated Corcoran's sentence and remanded to the trial court [due to a potential defect in the sentencing process], finding a "significant possibility that the trial court may have relied upon non-statutory aggravating factors in deciding whether to impose the death penalty" under Indiana law. Id. at 657 (citing Harrison v. State, 644 N.E.2d 1243 (Ind. 1995)). On September 30, 2001, the trial court reweighed the statutory aggravators under IND. CODE § 35-50-2-9(b)5 and reinstated Corcoran's death sentence; the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed his sentence on September 5, 2002. See Corcoran v. State, 774 N.E.2d 495, 498-99 (Ind. 2002) ("Corcoran II").
Corcoran was required to file a petition for post-conviction relief in state court by September 9, 2003. In what would be the first in a series of flip-flops, he refused to sign his petition, believing that he should be put to death for his crimes. At the request of his counsel, a State Public Defender, the trial court scheduled a hearing in October, 2003, to determine whether Corcoran was competent to waive post-trial review of his conviction and sentence. Defense counsel sought the opinions of three mental health experts: clinical psychologist Dr. Robert G. Kaplan; forensic psychiatrist Dr. George Parker; and clinical neuro-psychologist Dr. Edmund Haskins. Each doctor separately interviewed Corcoran and reviewed his mental health records.
At the hearing, all three experts testified that Corcoran suffered from paranoid schizophrenia; the State and the post-conviction court acknowledged the same. According to the experts, symptoms of his disease included delusions that he had a speech disorder and a belief that prison guards were operating an ultrasound machine to torment him. On the basis of that diagnosis, the experts concluded that Corcoran was unable to make a rational decision concerning his legal proceedings. Each expert stated that Corcoran's decision to waive post-conviction review of his sentence, thereby hastening his execution, was premised on his desire to be relieved of the pain that he believed he was experiencing as a result of his delusions. The experts also stated that Corcoran had the capacity to understand his legal position, and Dr. Parker testified that Corcoran had a clear awareness of the status of his case and what was at stake if he waived further proceedings.
Additionally, Corcoran testified at the competency hearing, where the prosecutor and

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the trial judge questioned him. He stated that he understood it was his last chance at a review of the case, and that if it was unsuccessful, he would be executed. He told the judge that he never wanted a competency hearing, and that he wanted to waive his appeals because he was guilty of murder. He stated:
I think I should be executed for what I have done and not because I am supposedly tortured with ultrasound or whatever. I am guilty of murder. I should be executed. That is all there is to it. That is what I believe. I believe the death penalty is a just punishment for four counts of murder.
In December, 2003, the post-conviction court found that Corcoran was competent to waive further challenges to his sentence and be executed. The court noted that:
[The] evidence is clear that [Corcoran] suffers from a mental illness . . . [however the issue before the court was] whether he is competent to waive post-conviction review . . . [t]he dialogue the State and the Court had with [Corcoran] clearly indicate he is competent and understands what he is

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