Corcoran v. Levenhagen

Decision Date27 January 2010
Docket NumberNo. 07-2093.,No. 07-2182.,07-2093.,07-2182.
Citation593 F.3d 547
PartiesJoseph E. CORCORAN, Petitioner-Appellee, Cross-Appellant, v. Mark LEVENHAGEN, Superintendent, Respondent-Appellant, Cross-Appellee.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit

Alan M. Freedman (submitted), Midwest Center for Justice, Evanston, IL, Laurence E. Komp (submitted), Manchester, MO, for Petitioner-Appellee.

James B. Martin (submitted), Office of the Attorney General, Indianapolis, IN, for Respondent-Appellant.

Before BAUER, WILLIAMS and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

BAUER, Circuit Judge.

Joseph Corcoran murdered four people, and an Indiana court sentenced him to death. The district court granted habeas relief on Corcoran's Sixth Amendment claim. We reversed on the Sixth Amendment issue, Corcoran v. Buss, 551 F.3d 703 (7th Cir.2008), but as the Supreme Court explained, we improperly omitted discussion of Corcoran's other habeas challenges. Corcoran v. Levenhagen, ___ U.S. ___, 130 S.Ct. 8, 9, 175 L.Ed.2d 1 (2009). We include that discussion here, after a full and fresh look at the record. We find that all of Corcoran's remaining habeas challenges are waived, and that three of them are frivolous, but that one of the challenges nevertheless entitles him to a new sentencing hearing.


We assume familiarity with the facts surrounding Joseph Corcoran's murders and the path Corcoran traversed through the state and federal court systems, all of which we recounted in our prior decision. See Corcoran, 551 F.3d at 704-08. That decision found that Corcoran's death sentence did not violate his jury trial rights under the Sixth Amendment, and that Corcoran was competent to waive state post-conviction proceedings. Id. at 712, 714. But the decision omitted discussion of four other challenges that Corcoran raised in the district court, that the district court failed to address, and that Corcoran did not appeal in this court although he was a cross-having cross-appealed a separate challenge. Those four challenges, which the Supreme Court advises us to either address ourselves or remand for the district court to consider, are that: (1) the Indiana trial court improperly considered non-statutory aggravating circumstances and failed to consider six mitigating circumstances; (2) Indiana's capital sentencing statute was unconstitutional; (3) the prosecution committed misconduct in the closing argument to the sentencing jury; and (4) Corcoran should not be executed because he suffers from a mental illness. Corcoran, 130 S.Ct. at 9; see Habeas Pet. at 10-13, 14-15.


A preliminary issue on remand from the Supreme Court, and the only issue that Corcoran addresses under Circuit Rule 54, as his "position as to the action which ought to be taken by this court on remand," is whether we should address his remaining habeas challenges ourselves or remand to the district court.

The Supreme Court explicitly gave us a choice. See Corcoran, 130 S.Ct. at 9 ("The Seventh Circuit should have permitted the District Court to consider Corcoran's unresolved challenges to his death sentence on remand, or should have itself explained why such consideration was unnecessary."); cf. Cone v. Bell, ___ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 1769, 1786, 173 L.Ed.2d 701 (2009) (ordering a remand to the district court). Sometimes we have chosen, after reversing a district court's grant of habeas relief, to address remaining habeas challenges not addressed by the district court ourselves, Sprosty v. Buchler, 79 F.3d 635, 645 (7th Cir.1996), and sometimes we have remanded. Stewart v. Peters, 958 F.2d 1379, 1388 (7th Cir.1992); Clark v. Duckworth, 906 F.2d 1174, 1179 (7th Cir.1990). The decision whether to remand in these circumstances is discretionary. See Corcoran, 130 S.Ct. at 9; Singleton v. Wulff, 428 U.S. 106, 121, 96 S.Ct. 2868, 49 L.Ed.2d 826 (1976) ("The matter of what questions may be taken up and resolved for the first time on appeal is one left primarily to the discretion of the courts of appeals, to be exercised on the facts of individual cases.").

We exercise our discretion here to decide the merits ourselves, because Corcoran's remaining challenges are rudimentary to the point of requiring no additional briefing, we are equally positioned with the district court to reach a disposition based on a full review of the present state court record, and a review by the district court would at any rate be subject to our review de novo. See Cone, 129 S.Ct. at 1792 (Alito, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part); Lonchar v. Thomas, 517 U.S. 314, 320, 116 S.Ct. 1293, 134 L.Ed.2d 440 (1996) (noting that appellate courts may "expedite proceedings on the merits"); Circuit Rule 22(d)(3) ("The merits of an appeal may be decided summarily if the panel decides that an appeal is frivolous."). In short, a remand to the district court is "unnecessary." Corcoran, 130 S.Ct. at 9.

Nor do we lack jurisdiction to rule on the merits. We have jurisdiction to take an appeal from the district court's decision — granting habeas relief on less than all the claims in Corcoran's multi-claim petition without adjudicating the remaining claims seeking the same relief — because it was a "final order." 28 U.S.C. § 2253. See, e.g., Sprosty v. Buchler, 79 F.3d 635, 645 (7th Cir.1996) (collecting cases). It matters not that a certificate of appealability was granted in this case, Corcoran v. Buss, No. 3:05-CV-389 (N.D.Ind. May 17, 2007), but not with respect to the remaining claims. See Owens v. Boyd, 235 F.3d 356, 358 (7th Cir.2001) ("[A] defect in a certificate of appealability is not a jurisdictional flaw.").

So we proceed with the merits of Corcoran's additional habeas challenges. Arguments not raised on appeal or cross-appeal are waived. See Fed. R.App. P. 28.1(c)(2); United States v. Johnson, 335 F.3d 589, 592 (7th Cir.2003); United States v. Berkowitz, 927 F.2d 1376, 1391 (7th Cir.1991); Sanchez v. Miller, 792 F.2d 694, 703 (7th Cir.1986). Corcoran as cross-appellant failed to appeal the four claims and thus he waived them.

Nevertheless, we may consider Corcoran's challenges for plain error, because "in exceptional circumstances, appellate courts, in the public interest, may, of their own motion, notice errors to which no exception has been taken, if the errors are obvious, or if they seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings." United States v. Atkinson, 297 U.S. 157, 160, 56 S.Ct. 391, 80 L.Ed. 555 (1936). For most of Corcoran's challenges we find no plain error, so we need not decide whether they present exceptional circumstances. But for one challenge, which we discuss first, we think that the state trial court's decision resulted in two obviously unreasonable fact determinations entitling Corcoran to a new sentencing hearing.

A. Sentencing Process

Corcoran claimed that the Indiana trial court considered non-statutory aggravating circumstances, — i.e., Corcoran's future dangerousness, his victims' innocence, and the murders' heinousness — in contravention of state law. See Bivins v. State, 642 N.E.2d 928, 955-56 (Ind.1994) (outlawing the use of non-statutory aggravating circumstances under Indiana state law). The trial court disagreed, stating that "in balancing the proved aggravators and mitigators, [the trial court] emphasizes ... that it only relied upon those proven statutory aggravators." See Corcoran v. State, 774 N.E.2d 495, 498 (Ind.2002) (quoting the trial court).

But this finding of fact, that the trial court did not consider non-statutory aggravators in the balancing process used to determine Corcoran's death sentence, was obviously in error, if we are to believe what the trial court added next. Specifically, it stated that its "remarks at the sentencing hearing, and the language in the original sentencing order," — both regarding the use of the three non-statutory aggravators about which Corcoran complained — "explain why such high weight was given to the statutory aggravator of multiple murder." See id. (emphasis added). In other words, the court added weight to a statutory aggravator based on the non-statutory aggravators. And factor weighting is part of factor "balancing," the very process in which the trial court disclaimed reliance on non-statutory aggravators. So unlike the Indiana Supreme Court, we are far from "satisfied that the trial court has relied only on aggravators listed in Indiana Code § 35-50-2-9(b)." Corcoran v. State, 774 N.E.2d 495, 499 (Ind.2002). Indeed, we find this an "unreasonable determination of the facts" in light of the trial court's proceedings, thus warranting habeas relief. 28 U.S.C. § 2254.

Nothing in this opinion prevents Indiana from adopting a rule, contra Bivins, 642 N.E.2d at 955-56, permitting the use of non-statutory aggravators in the death sentence selection process. See Zant v Stephens, 462 U.S. 862, 878, 103 S.Ct. 2733, 77 L.Ed.2d 235 (1983) (permitting their use under federal law). But the state trial court must reconsider its sentencing determination, and this time may not find, contrary to logic, that it both did and did not consider non-statutory aggravating circumstances when it sentenced Corcoran to death.

Also, the trial court should address Corcoran's age (at the time of the murders, he was twenty-two) as a mitigating factor in order to cure a different fact-finding error by the Indiana Supreme Court. Corcoran claimed that the Indiana trial court failed to consider six of the ten mitigating circumstances Corcoran proffered: (1) his age; (2) his substantially impaired ability to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform that conduct with the requirements of the law; (3) his inability to competently assist in his defense; (4) his forethought to protect his seven-year-old niece during the murders; (5) his good behavior in jail before sentencing; and (6) his admission of guilt "at all stages of the legal process" including the...

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