Corcoran v. Neal, No. 13–1318.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtSYKES, Circuit Judge.
Citation783 F.3d 676
PartiesJoseph E. CORCORAN, Petitioner–Appellant, v. Ron NEAL, Superintendent,Respondent–Appellee.
Decision Date14 April 2015
Docket NumberNo. 13–1318.

783 F.3d 676

Joseph E. CORCORAN, Petitioner–Appellant
v.
Ron NEAL, Superintendent* Respondent–Appellee.

No. 13–1318.

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit.

Argued Nov. 5, 2013.
Decided April 14, 2015.


783 F.3d 677

Alan Michael Freedman, Attorney, Midwest Center for Justice, Ltd., Evanston, IL, for Petitioner–Appellant.

Stephen R. Creason, James Blain Martin, Attorneys, Office of the Attorney General, Indianapolis, IN, for Respondent–Appellee.

Before BAUER, WILLIAMS, and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

Opinion

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

783 F.3d 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

783 F.3d 679

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 Corcoran's age at the time of the murders (he was 22) as a mitigating factor. The judge summarily rejected this argument, saying, “I don't consider your age of 22 to be a mitigating circumstance.”

783 F.3d 680

The judge then weighed the proven aggravating and mitigating circumstances and found that the former outweighed the latter. As relevant here, the judge made the following remarks in her oral sentencing statement:

I'm required to balance aggravating circumstances proved by the State of Indiana against the mitigating circumstances proved by the Defense. That has been a very difficult process, and not a process that I have ever taken lightly, and certainly would never take lightly, Mr. Corcoran.
... [T]he knowing and intentional murders of
...

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19 practice notes
  • McKinney v. Ryan, No. 09–99018.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit
    • 29 Diciembre 2015
    ...in part). The majority's disagreement on this point creates a circuit split with at least two other circuits. See Corcoran v. Neal, 783 F.3d 676, 685–87 (7th Cir.2015); Quince v. Crosby, 360 F.3d 1259, 1267 (11th Cir.2004).25 The majority's incorrect standard is dealt with later. See infra ......
  • Dassey v. Dittmann, No. 16-3397
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit
    • 22 Junio 2017
    ...of the facts if it "rests upon fact-finding that ignores the clear and convincing weight of the evidence." Corcoran v. Neal , 783 F.3d 676, 683 (7th Cir. 2015), cert. denied, ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1493, 194 L.Ed.2d 589 (2016) ; see also Miller-El v. Cockrell , 537 U.S. 322, 340......
  • Laux v. Zatecky, No. 16-3282
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • 17 Mayo 2018
    ...that aggravating circumstances must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Ind. Code § 35-50-2-9(l ) ; see also Corcoran v. Neal , 783 F.3d 676, 678 n.2 (7th Cir. 2015) ; Laux I , 821 N.E.2d at 818, 821 ; id. at 824 (Sullivan, J., dissenting). The Indiana Supreme Court decided in 2005 to vaca......
  • Adefeyinti v. Varga, Case No. 15 C 0704
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Northern District of Illinois)
    • 19 Julio 2016
    ...established by the Supreme Court. See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 402-03, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000); Corcoran v. Neal, 783 F.3d 676, 682 (7th Cir. 2015). Clearly established federal law for purposes of § 2254(d)(1) includes only the holdings, as opposed to dicta, of the U......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
19 cases
  • McKinney v. Ryan, No. 09–99018.
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit
    • 29 Diciembre 2015
    ...in part). The majority's disagreement on this point creates a circuit split with at least two other circuits. See Corcoran v. Neal, 783 F.3d 676, 685–87 (7th Cir.2015); Quince v. Crosby, 360 F.3d 1259, 1267 (11th Cir.2004).25 The majority's incorrect standard is dealt with later. See infra ......
  • Dassey v. Dittmann, No. 16-3397
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Seventh Circuit
    • 22 Junio 2017
    ...of the facts if it "rests upon fact-finding that ignores the clear and convincing weight of the evidence." Corcoran v. Neal , 783 F.3d 676, 683 (7th Cir. 2015), cert. denied, ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 1493, 194 L.Ed.2d 589 (2016) ; see also Miller-El v. Cockrell , 537 U.S. 322, 340......
  • Laux v. Zatecky, No. 16-3282
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • 17 Mayo 2018
    ...that aggravating circumstances must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Ind. Code § 35-50-2-9(l ) ; see also Corcoran v. Neal , 783 F.3d 676, 678 n.2 (7th Cir. 2015) ; Laux I , 821 N.E.2d at 818, 821 ; id. at 824 (Sullivan, J., dissenting). The Indiana Supreme Court decided in 2005 to vaca......
  • Adefeyinti v. Varga, Case No. 15 C 0704
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Northern District of Illinois)
    • 19 Julio 2016
    ...established by the Supreme Court. See Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 402-03, 120 S.Ct. 1495, 146 L.Ed.2d 389 (2000); Corcoran v. Neal, 783 F.3d 676, 682 (7th Cir. 2015). Clearly established federal law for purposes of § 2254(d)(1) includes only the holdings, as opposed to dicta, of the U......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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