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Corcoran v. Buss

December 31, 2008


Appeals from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, South Bend Division. No. 05 C 389-Allen Sharp, Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Bauer, Circuit Judge


Before BAUER, WILLIAMS and SYKES, Circuit Judges.

On July 26, 1997, Joseph Corcoran shot and killed four men: his brother Jim Corcoran, his sister's fiancé Robert Scott Turner, Timothy Bricker, and Doug Stillwell. An Indiana state court jury convicted Corcoran of four counts of murder. The trial court agreed with the jury's determination and sentenced Corcoran to death. Corcoran exhausted his state court direct appeals and waived state post-conviction review. In 2005, Corcoran filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, claiming that his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial was violated by an offer made by the State during pre-trial negotiations, which in turn tainted his death sentence. The district court granted his petition. The State now appeals the district court's grant of habeas relief; Corcoran cross-appeals from the district court's decision that Corcoran was competent to waive his state post-conviction proceedings. For the following reasons, we affirm the district court's finding of competence, but we reverse the grant of habeas relief.


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 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. Negotiations lasted for approximately nine months,*fn1 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 competent, defense counsel withdrew its claims. A jury found Corcoran guilty and recommended the death penalty. On August 26, 1999, the district court sentenced Corcoran to death.*fn2 On direct appeal, Corcoran filed a written waiver of his right to appeal his convictions and challenged only his death sentence. Among the six claims that alleged the Indiana Death Penalty statute violated his state and federal constitutional rights, Corcoran argued that the statute violated his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial in that when he declined the State's offer to proceed by a bench trial and chose to be tried by a jury, the State's request for the death penalty 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.

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 in these discretionary powers to agree to a lesser sentence in exchange for a guilty plea or for a bench trial. Corcoran I, at 654. However, the court vacated Corcoran's sentence and remanded to the trial court, 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) and reinstated Corcoran's*fn3 death sentence; the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed his sentence on September 5, 2002. See Corcoran v. State, 774 N.E.2d 495, 448-49 (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 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 doing. While his choice of action may be unwise, and obviously against the advice of counsel, he is competent to make this ulti-mate decision in spite of his mental illness.

The Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the post-conviction court's competency determination. See Corcoran v. State, 820 N.E.2d 655, 662, aff'd on reh'g, 827 N.E.2d 542 (Ind. 2005) (Corcoran III); In doing so, the court considered: (1) the testimony of the experts, each of whom concluded that his decision to forego post-conviction review was premised on his desire to be relieved of the delusional pain he was experiencing as a result of his mental illness; (2) the fact that Corcoran did not tell any expert that he wished to end his appeals in order to escape his delusions; (3) his prison records and expert medical testimony which revealed that his psychotic symptoms were being controlled through various psychiatric medications; (4) Corcoran's statements at the hearing that he wanted to waive his appeals; and (5) evidence that Corcoran was aware of his legal position and the consequences of his decision, such as his own testimony at the hearing as well as expert testimony that he was cognizant of his sentence and the appeals process. The court concluded that the evidence supported the trial court's determination that Corcoran had "both a rational understanding of and can appreciate his legal position . . . [and] the evidence does not conclusively indicate that Corcoran's decision was not made in a rational manner." Id. at 662.

On February 10, 2005, Corcoran changed his mind and attempted to file a verified state post-conviction petition, which was dismissed as untimely by the trial court; the Indiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court on April 18, 2006, stating that "[w]e have afforded Corcoran considerable review of his sentence . . . and the post-conviction court's competency determination. The public interest in achieving finality at this stage weighs heavily against further review." Corcoran v. State, 845 N.E.2d 1019, 1023 (Ind. 2006) (Corcoran IV) (internal citations omitted).

On November 8, 2005, Corcoran filed an untimely petition for a writ of habeas corpus with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, raising eight claims that his constitutional rights had been violated by the proceedings that resulted in his conviction and death sentence. On December 5, 2005, Corcoran again changed his mind and filed a pro se "Petition to Halt All Future Appeals," in which he indicated that he did not wish to further challenge his convictions and sentence. On March 31, 2006, Corcoran sent a letter to the district court, stating that he only signed the post-conviction petition (filed on February 10, 2005) because he believed the Indiana Supreme Court would find him competent. He further stated that he never intended to appeal his sentence, and that he had consented to the filing of the habeas petition in acquiescence to the requests of his wife and his attorneys. He also told the court that he fabricated the story about being tortured by an ultrasound machine in prison, and he denied that his sleep disorder was a motivation to give up on appeal. Corcoran asked the district court to accept the Indiana Supreme Court's finding that he was competent, and in essence, deny his habeas petition.

Against Corcoran's wishes, on April 9, 2007, the district court granted Corcoran's petition for habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d), finding the Indiana Supreme Court's holding in Corcoran I that the offer was within "the discretionary powers of the prosecutor" violated Corcoran's right to a jury trial under United States v. Jackson, 390 U.S. 570, 88 S.Ct. 1209, 20 L.Ed.2d 138 (1968), which held that a provision of the Federal Kidnapping Act, 18 U.S.C. ยงยง 1201 and 1202, that reserved the possibility of the death penalty exclusively for defendants who insisted on a jury trial, imposed an impermissible burden on the right to a jury trial. The district court considered both of the State's offers in adjudicating the present petition, and found that while the first offer to waive the death penalty in exchange for a guilty plea was well within prosecutorial discretion, the second offer sought to coerce Corcoran into waiving his right to a jury trial, and as such, was "objectively unreasonable" under the United States Supreme Court's decision in Jackson. Corcoran v. Buss, 483 F.Supp.2d 709, 723-24 (N.D.Ind. 2007) (Corcoran V). The district court distinguished Bordenkircher from the instant case, by finding that the State's second offer could not be considered in the context of plea negotiations, for the offer did not seek an admission of guilt. The district court also found that the Indiana Supreme Court, in Corcoran III, reasonably concluded that Corcoran was competent to waive his state ...

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