Bill K. Wilson, Superintendant, Indiana State Prison v. Joseph E. Corcoran

Respondent  Joseph Corcoran had shot and killed four men. An Indiana jury found him guilty of four counts of murder, found the statutory aggravating circumstance of multiple murders, and unanimously recommended capital punishment. The trial judge agreed and sentenced respondent to death. But on appeal, the Supreme Court of Indiana vacated the sentence out of concern that the trial judge might have violated Indiana law by relying partly on non statutory aggravating factors when imposing the death penalty.

 It held that because the trial court might have meant that it weighed factors as aggravating circumstances, the Indiana Supreme Court remanded for resentencing.

On remand, the trial court issued a revised sentencing order. It wrote: ‘The trial Court, in balancing the proved aggravators and mitigators, emphasizes to the Supreme Court that it only relied upon those proven statutory aggravators. The trial Court’s remarks at the sentencing hearing, and the language in the original sentencing order explain why such high weight was given to the statutory aggravator of multiple murder, and further support the trial Court’s personal conclusion that the sentence is appropriate punishment for this offender and these crimes.’ On appeal, over respondent’s objection, the Supreme Court accepted this explanation and affirmed the sentence.

Respondent then applied to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana for a writ of habeas corpus asserting a number of grounds for relief, including a renewed claim that, notwithstanding 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. The District Court however granted habeas relief on a wholly different ground: that 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.  It did not address the sentencing challenge because that was rendered moot by the grant of habeas relief.

The State appealed, and the Seventh Circuit reversed the District Court’s Sixth Amendment ruling. Corcoran v. Buss, 551 F. 3d 703, 712, 714 (2008). It remanded the case to the District Court “with instructions to deny the writ.” But the Supreme Court granted certiorari and vacated the Seventh Circuit’s judgment.

But on remand, the Court of Appeals changed course and granted habeas relief. Corcoran v. Levenhagen, 593 F. 3d 547, 555 (2010). After determining that respondent’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 Supreme Court reiterated that it is only noncompliance with federal law that renders a State’s criminal judgment susceptible to collateral attack in the federal courts. The habeas statute unambiguously provide that a federal court may issue the writ to a state prisoner “only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U. S. C. §2254(a). It also reiterated that federal habeas corpus relief does not lie for errors of state law.

In response to the Seventh Circuit’s opinion, the State filed 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 further contended 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 will cure the state trial court’s ‘unreasonable determination of the facts.’ (It will also prevent noncompliance 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 Supreme Court held that the amendment did not cure the defect as it was not enough to note that a habeas petitioner merely 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 reflected no such agreement, nor did it even articulate what federal right was allegedly infringed. The petition for writ of certiorari was granted and the judgment of the Court of Appeals was vacated, and the case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with the opinion.