Corcoran v. State, No. 02S00-9805-DP-293.

Docket NºNo. 02S00-9805-DP-293.
Citation739 N.E.2d 649
Case DateDecember 06, 2000
CourtSupreme Court of Indiana

739 N.E.2d 649

Joseph E. CORCORAN, Defendant-Appellant,
v.
STATE of Indiana, Plaintiff-Appellee

No. 02S00-9805-DP-293.

Supreme Court of Indiana.

December 6, 2000.


739 N.E.2d 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.

739 N.E.2d 650
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

739 N.E.2d 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

739 N.E.2d 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 S.Ct. 2733, 2742, 77 L.Ed.2d 235, 249-50 (1983)). Even with the addition of life without parole as an alternative punishment for death-eligible murderers, however, the Indiana system "rationally distinguishes between those individuals for whom death is an appropriate sanction and those for whom it is not." Stevens v. State, 691 N.E.2d 412, 429 (Ind.1997) (quoting Spaziano v. Florida, 468 U.S. 447, 460, 104 S.Ct. 3154, 3162, 82 L.Ed.2d 340, 352 (1984)). Just as there is no constitutional defect under the Indiana death penalty statute, which gives the Indiana sentencer discretion to choose between death and imprisonment for a term of years, so also there is no defect in permitting the sentencer to choose the alternative of life imprisonment without parole. Wrinkles, 690 N.E.2d at 1165.

We conclude the Eighth Amendment is not violated by the Indiana statute's inclusion of life imprisonment without parole as a sentencing alternative using the same aggravating factors as a death sentence.

In the fourth claim of facial unconstitutionality based on the inclusion of the life imprisonment alternative with the death penalty, the defendant contends that the statute violates Article I, Section 16 of the Indiana Constitution, which provides in relevant part: "All penalties shall be proportioned to the nature of the offense." He argues that, because the statute does not identify whether death or life imprisonment is the more severe punishment, it is impossible to assure that the penalty imposed is proportional to the crime committed. Because death or life imprisonment are each grave and extreme punishments and are reserved for only the most extreme murders, in contrast to sentences for a discrete term of years in all other murders, the proportionality provision of the Indiana Constitution is not offended by their equivalent availability under the statute.4

739 N.E.2d 654
Impingement on Right to Jury Trial

The defendant contends that Indiana's death penalty scheme impermissibly infringes, facially and as applied, upon the right to jury trial. He argues that, because identical factors may support a prosecutor's decision to seek either death or life imprisonment, the statute enables prosecutors to seek the death penalty "to coerce an individual who refuses to plead guilty to relinquish a constitutional right" to jury trial. Brief of Appellant at 46. The defendant asserts that in his case he declined the State's offer to accept a guilty plea or try his case to the bench and thereby avoid the death penalty. He urges that because the prosecutor thus believed that life imprisonment was the appropriate penalty, the...

To continue reading

Request your trial
23 practice notes
  • Corcoran v. Buss, No. 07-2093.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • 31 Diciembre 2008
    ...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 ap......
  • Corcoran v. Buss, No. 3:05-CV-389 AS.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Indiana
    • 9 Abril 2007
    ...to lay it out fully here. There are five published opinions of the Supreme Court of Indiana related to this case. Corcoran v. State, 739 N.E.2d 649 (Ind. Corcoran v. State, 774 N.E.2d 495 (Ind. 2002) Corcoran v. State, 820 N.E.2d 655 (Ind. 2005) Corcoran v. State, 827 N.E.2d 542 (Ind. 2005)......
  • Ward v. Wilson, Case No. 3:12-cv-00192-RLY-WGH
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of Indiana)
    • 22 Septiembre 2015
    ...permitting the sentencer to choose the alternative of life imprisonment without parole. Wrinkles, 690 N.E.2d at 1165.Corcoran v. State, 739 N.E.2d 649, 653 (Ind. 2000). The foregoing assessment of the Indiana death penalty statute by the Indiana courts was not contrary to, nor did it involv......
  • Corcoran v. Buss, CAUSE NO. 3:05-CV-389 JD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Indiana
    • 10 Enero 2013
    ...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......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
23 cases
  • Corcoran v. Buss, No. 07-2093.
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (7th Circuit)
    • 31 Diciembre 2008
    ...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 ap......
  • Corcoran v. Buss, No. 3:05-CV-389 AS.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Indiana
    • 9 Abril 2007
    ...to lay it out fully here. There are five published opinions of the Supreme Court of Indiana related to this case. Corcoran v. State, 739 N.E.2d 649 (Ind. Corcoran v. State, 774 N.E.2d 495 (Ind. 2002) Corcoran v. State, 820 N.E.2d 655 (Ind. 2005) Corcoran v. State, 827 N.E.2d 542 (Ind. 2005)......
  • Ward v. Wilson, Case No. 3:12-cv-00192-RLY-WGH
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of Indiana)
    • 22 Septiembre 2015
    ...permitting the sentencer to choose the alternative of life imprisonment without parole. Wrinkles, 690 N.E.2d at 1165.Corcoran v. State, 739 N.E.2d 649, 653 (Ind. 2000). The foregoing assessment of the Indiana death penalty statute by the Indiana courts was not contrary to, nor did it involv......
  • Corcoran v. Buss, CAUSE NO. 3:05-CV-389 JD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court of Northern District of Indiana
    • 10 Enero 2013
    ...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......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT