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Senate Bill 22
Proposed bill establishes a procedure to determine whether a defendant charged with murder is an individual with a severe mental illness. Prohibits the imposition of the death penalty on a defendant found to be an individual with a severe mental illness. Provides that a jury serves as the fact finder in a sentencing hearing in a capital case, even if the defendant pleads guilty or is tried. … Permits a defendant to waive the right to impanel a jury during the sentencing hearing.
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Joseph Corcoran, left, is escorted to court for the first day of his 1999 trial. Jury members from Porter County convicted him and recommended a sentence of death in the quadruple murder case. The sentence was later thrown out but was reinstated last week by a federal appeals court.

Unjust death penalty

Reinstatement of the death penalty against Joseph Corcoran marks another sad twist in a cruel and misplaced effort to extract justice from a mentally ill man. The sentence should again be thrown out on appeal, and Indiana lawmakers, in the meantime, should finally pass a law banning the execution of the mentally ill.

Corcoran is a prime example of why such a law is needed. He demonstrated classic signs of paranoid schizophrenia when he shot to death his brother, his sister’s fiancé and two other men in 1997 because he thought they were talking about him. Five years earlier, he had been charged but acquitted in the shotgun slaying of his parents.

His horrific story would have ended with a life sentence if Corcoran had agreed to bench trial – with a judge instead of a jury reaching the verdict – but the terms of the deal from then-Allen County Prosecutor Robert Gevers placed the death penalty back on the table with a jury trial. After he was convicted, Corcoran changed his mind and decided to pursue an appeal, but the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that his decision came too late.

That ruling was overturned in 2007, but last week the U.S. Court of Appeals issued a 2-1 decision reinstating the death penalty. At issue is the question of whether Corcoran is capable of making a rational choice. In her dissent, Judge Ann Claire Williams pointed to the fact that no testimony was presented to suggest that he was.

“The majority reasons that the Indiana Supreme Court was entitled to believe Corcoran’s contention that he wished to waive further proceedings because of his guilt, and I agree that ordinarily, the Indiana court’s decision to rely on one person’s testimony over other people’s testimony would be one to which we would defer,” Williams wrote.

“But this is not a case where the court picked the opinion of one expert who believed Corcoran could make a rational decision over an expert who disagreed,” she wrote. “Indeed, the state presented no expert who contradicted the conclusions of these three experts. Rather, the person whom the court credited was a person diagnosed with a severe mental illness that causes delusions, who told a doctor and his sister he wanted to die to escape those delusions.”

Corcoran’s attorneys said they will seek another hearing before the full federal appellate court. If it is denied, they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gov. Mitch Daniels could also commute the death sentence, which he did in the case of Arthur Paul Baird, who killed his parents and pregnant wife in 1985.

Such cases could be avoided in the future if a bill pending in the Indiana General Assembly is approved. Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Portage, has again filed legislation based on the recommendations of the Bowser Commission. Senate Bill 22 would prohibit use of the death penalty in cases where a defendant is found to suffer from a severe mental illness.

This page has long believed that justice is not achieved by killing people. But even those who support the death penalty should agree that putting to death criminals who are mentally ill serves no purpose.

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