Tuesday, December 21, 2010


The Supreme Court just took the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to task in the case of BILL K. WILSON, SUPERINTENDANT, INDIANA STATE PRISON v. JOSEPH E. CORCORAN, 562 U.S. _____ (2010). In this per curiam opinion the Court makes clear that federal courts can only grant habeas corpus relief to prisoners when a violation of federal law, not state law, underlies the prisoner's claim.

Joseph Corcoran

The prisoner, from Fort Wayne, Indiana, murdered four persons. One July day in 1997 Corcoran overheard his brother, James Corcoran, his sister's fiancé, Robert Turner, and two friends Timothy Bricker and Douglas Stillwell talking about him. Corcoran removed his 7 year old niece to an upstairs room then took a Ruger Mini -14 semi-automatic rifle, loaded the rifle, and shot James Corcoran, Robert Turner, and Timothy Bricker before the men could move from harm's way. Douglas Stillwell fled to the kitchen where he was cornered by Corcoran who shot him to death.

Ruger Mini - 14 Semi Automatic Rifle

Corcoran laid the weapon down and went next door to ask a neighbor to call the police. Police searched Corcoran's room and the locked attic of the house, to which only Corcoran has access. They found guns, ammunition, explosives, and a copy of the Turner Diaries together with military manuals and publications.

As a side note, the Turner Diaries have been connected in one way or another with several notorious crimes including the terrorist bombing of Oklahoma City's Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh. Other crimes include the murder of Alan Berg, a radio host for Denver's KOA; the murder of James Byrd, an African-American shackled to the back of John William King's pickup truck and dragged to death; the murder of Frank Jude, Jr., who was beaten to death in a savage attack first by off duty Milwaukee police officers and also by an on duty Milwaukee police officer who joined the fray responding to a 911 call; an assault on three men at a "Gay Bar" by Jacob Robida, who committed suicide after first killing a hostage and a police officer; and the death of three persons caused by a bomb detonated by British Neo-Nazi David Copeland, in his personal war against homosexuals and Asians.

Corcoran, who employed an insanity defense based on multiple theories of paranoid or schizotypal personality disorder, was found guilty of the four counts of murder. The mitigating factors in the sentencing phase of the trial were his extreme mental and/or emotional disturbance, his diminished capacity to appreciate his criminal conduct, his diminished capacity to assist in his own defense because of mental illness, his full cooperation with police, his admission of guilt, his good behavior in jail, that he protected his 7 year old niece before murders, no significant prior criminal conduct; his remorsefulness, and his young age (22).

The aggravating factor was the multiple murders. When sentencing Corcoran, Allen County Superior Court Judge Frances C. Gull said:

[T]he knowing and intentional murders of four innocent people is an extremely heinous and aggravated crime. . . . I don’t think in the history of this county we’ve had a mass murderer such as yourself. It makes you, Mr. Corcoran, a very dangerous, evil mass murderer. And I am convinced in my heart of hearts, . . . if given the opportunity, you will murder again.

Judge Gull

The Supreme Court of Indiana was concerned that the judge's remarks may be construed to mean that she had considered the innocence of the murder victims and the heinous nature of the offenses when deliberating on whether to impose the death penalty. Indiana trial courts may weigh only the statutory aggravating factors, but may comment on those factors, placing the decisions they make in context. The Indiana Supreme Court remanded the case for resentencing.

Upon resentencing Judge Gull assured the Supreme Court of Indiana that she considered only the statutory factors permitted by Indiana law as she once again imposed the death penalty.

Corcoran objected to the Indiana Supreme Court's acceptance of Judge Gull's explanation and accepted the sentence as valid.

Corcoran then seeks federal habeas corpus relief from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana. His habeas petition asserted a number of grounds for relief, including a renewed claim that, not-withstanding its assurances to the contrary, the trial court improperly relied on non-statutory aggravating factors when it resentenced him. Respondent also asserted that this reliance violated the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.

Indiana countered arguing that Corcoran failed "to establish any constitutional deficiency in [the] Indiana Supreme Court’s review of the trial court’s treatment of Corcoran’s sentence on remand, let alone does it show that the state supreme court’s judgment is in any way inconsistent with applicable United States Supreme Court precedent."

The District Court went in another direction. It granted habeas relief on a wholly different ground. An offer by the prosecutor to take the death penalty off the table in exchange for a waiver of a jury trial had violated the Sixth Amendment. The District Court did not address the sentencing challenge because that was rendered moot by the grant of habeas relief.

Indiana appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, The Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court's Sixth Amendment ruling. Then the Seventh Circuit remanded the case back to the District Court with instructions to deny the writ. The Seventh Circuit failed to address Corcoran's remaining claims. To correct that oversight the Supreme Court granted certiorari. The Supreme Court, in that previous case, explained that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals 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.

But this case, distinguished by courts taking different directions, saw the Seventh Circuit veer off track. On remand — and without any opportunity for briefing by the parties — the Court of Appeals changed course and granted habeas relief. After determining that Corcoran’s sentencing challenge had been waived by his failure to include it in his original cross-appeal, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the claim satisfied plain-error review.

The three judge panel for the Seventh Circuit said that, unlike the Indiana Supreme Court, it was unsatisfied with the trial court’s representation that it relied only on aggravating factors authorized by Indiana law. Since the trial court’s revised sentencing order said that it used the non-statutory factors of heinousness, victims’ innocence, and future dangerousness to determine the weight given to the aggravator of multiple murders, the Seventh Circuit concluded that the Indiana Supreme Court had made an unreasonable determination of the facts when it accepted the trial court’s representation that it did not rely on those factors as aggravating circumstances. The panel therefore required the Indiana trial court to reconsider its sentencing determination in order to prevent non-compliance with Indiana law.

The Seventh Circuit completely ignored the rule of law that says federal habeas relief is not available for violations of state law. If a federal court grants habeas relief it must do so because of a violation of federal law.

This is not new stuff. In Estelle v. McGuire, 502 U. S. 62, 67 (1991) the Supreme Court held that neither the belief that the instruction violated state law nor a belief that the trial judge incorrectly interpreted the state evidence code is a ground for federal habeas relief.

Previously, in Lewis v. Jeffers, 497 U. S. 764, 780 (1990), Associate Justice O'Connor wrote for the majority that "federal habeas review of a state court's application of a constitutionally narrowed aggravating circumstance is limited, at most, to determining whether the state court's finding was so arbitrary or capricious as to constitute an independent due process or [an] Eighth Amendment violation".

In this case the Seventh Circuit made three more errors. First the panel’s opinion contained no hint that it thought the violation of Indiana law it had unearthed also entailed the infringement of any federal right. The Seventh Circuit framed Corcoran's claim as whether  the Indiana trial court considered non-statutory aggravating circumstances . . . in contravention of state law.

Secondly, it explicitly acknowledged that nothing in its opinion prevents Indiana from adopting a rule permitting the use of non-statutory aggravators in the death sentence selection process.

Third, the Seventh Circuit failed to find an unreasonable determination of the facts under federal statute.

28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(2).
(d) An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim
(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or
 (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.
Indiana's response to the Seventh Circuit came in the form of a petition for rehearing and rehearing en banc. The State’s petition argued that the Seventh Circuit had erred by granting relief in the absence of a federal violation. It also contended, on the authority of Wainwright v. Goode, 464 U. S. 78 (1983) (per curiam), that the Court of Appeals erred by second-guessing the Indiana Supreme Court’s factual determination that its own trial court complied with Indiana law. The Seventh Circuit denied rehearing, but amended its opinion to include this language:

This [remand for resentencing] will cure the state trial court’s ‘unreasonable determination of the facts.... (It will also prevent non-compliance with Indiana law. [Corcoran] contended that, under the circumstances of this case, noncompliance with state law also violates the federal Constitution and thus warrants him relief under 28 U. S. C. §2254(d)(2). [The State] has not advanced any contrary argument based on Wainwright v. Goode.
In Wainwright v. Goode the Supreme Court said that where the issue of whether the sentencing judge relied on a non-statutory aggravating circumstance was one of law, it is an issue of state law that was resolved by the Florida Supreme Court. That resolution should have been accepted by the Court of Appeals, since the views of a State's highest court with respect to state law are binding on the federal courts.

The Supreme Court found the language from the Seventh Circuit insufficient. The amendment did not cure the defect. It is not enough to note that a habeas petitioner asserts the existence of a constitutional violation; unless the federal court agrees with that assertion, it may not grant relief. The Seventh Circuit’s opinion reflects no such agreement, nor does it even articulate what federal right was allegedly infringed. In fact, as to one possible federal claim, the court maintains that it would not violate federal law for Indiana to adopt a rule authorizing what the trial court did.

Without expressing a view about the merits of Corcoran's habeas petition the Court vacated the judgment of the Seventh Circuit and remanded the case "for further proceedings consistent with this opinion".

Hopefully the Seventh Circuit will permit the parties to brief and argue their positions before veering off on another tangent.

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