On July 26, 1997, Joseph Edward Corcoran murdered his brother James, his sister's fiancé Robert Turner and two friends Timothy Bricker and Doug Stillwell. He is scheduled to be executed for those crimes on July 21, 2005.
Joseph Corcoran (far right) with friends and relatives, including Robert Turner.
Corcoran was upstairs in his sister's home while his brother and Turner sat in the living room with their friends. He claims he heard them talking about him, so he went downstairs and confronted them. Then he placed his 7-year-old niece in an upstairs bedroom to protect her from the gunfire, loaded his rifle and before they had a chance to escape, he shot and killed the four men. Corcoran then laid down the rifle, went to a neighbor's house and asked them to call the police.
In Indiana, the prosecution is not required to seek the death penalty in every case. The determination whether to seek the death penalty against a particular defendant on a particular murder charge is left to the discretion of the prosecuting attorney for each Indiana county. Similarly, not every case in which the death penalty is sought proceeds to trial. As with other cases, prosecuting attorneys are given discretion to enter into plea negotiations, offering the defendant a sentence less than death in exchange for a guilty plea.
Initially, prosecutors offered Joe Corcoran a deal of life in prison in exchange for a guilty plea. Corcoran said he would take the plea deal, but only if he could have his vocal chords cut. For more than a decade, he has believed that he talks in his sleep and his enemies use this to get information out of him. Prosecutors, of course, rejected his request to have his vocal chords severed. The case proceeded to trial where the jury found him guilty and recommended the death penalty, which the judge in the case upheld.
In 1994, the Indiana General Assembly made mentally retarded individuals ineligible for death or life without parole. But the state does not extend its consideration of mental impairment to defendants suffering from mental illness. Corcoran would not be on death row if he were suffering from mental retardation instead of mental illness. The law regards the mentally retarded as not responsible for their actions in committing a murder, but the standards for the mentally ill are much stricter and some believe much more erroneous.
At his initial trial, defense attorneys argued that Joe Corcoran was mentally incompetent to stand trial, stating that he suffered from schizotypal personality disorder and schizophrenia as confirmed by medical professionals. But the court ignored those diagnoses.
Indiana has no uniform standard for evaluating whether or not defendants are in fact mentally ill and whether or not their mental illness makes them competent to stand trial. Primarily, the question of whether or not a person knows their actions were "wrong" in committing the crimes of which they are accused is the minimal requirement. If they are able to admit that yes, they are aware of their wrongdoing, they are usually found competent to stand trial. But it's not always this easy.
Corcoran has been incarcerated for nearly eight years. Since his imprisonment, he has repeatedly been diagnosed as schizophrenic, paranoid and delusional by doctors who routinely evaluate patients for both state prosecutors and the Department of Corrections. He is currently on the antipsychotic medication Geodon and Trazadone, an antidepressant. According to prison medical records, the medications are having a "variable effect," though he remains "paranoid and delusional" in spite of the medication.
In addition to believing his enemies are able to interrogate him in sleep and requesting his vocal chords be severed, Corcoran also believes that prison guards have installed a type of ultrasound machine in his cell and project high frequency sound waves, causing him to twitch uncontrollably and cause him extreme pain. He also believes that the guards have found a way to project his thoughts on the radio for others to hear, and he hears high frequency voices in return.
After receiving the death penalty for his crimes, Corcoran waived all his rights to an appeal over the objection of his attorneys. According to court records, Corcoran has stated that he wants the death penalty because he knows he did something wrong, and also because he believes it is the only way to stop the (imaginary) pain inflicted upon him by the prison guards, as well as the voices he hears.
But state defense attorneys have pursued the appeals process on his behalf and have introduced the testimony of several psychologists confirming the medical findings of prison doctors that Corcoran is suffering from real and debilitating mental illness.
"I believe that he is delusional," testified Dr. Robert Kaplan. "He is suffering from a severe mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia, that is causing him to believe things about his situation that has affected his ability to make appropriate decisions regarding his defense and how to proceed."
This diagnosis was shared by Dr. George Parker of the IU Medical School and deputy medical director for the Indiana Division of Mental Health, who has treated schizophrenic patients in state hospitals for more than a decade.
Parker also testified that he believes Corcoran suffered from schizophrenia and delusions at the time he committed the murders. "The evidence stretches pretty far back. But there was no clear definitive diagnosis made until after the arrest. But the evidence of paranoid beliefs, of auditory hallucinations, those at least pre-date the offense."
At Corcoran's sentencing hearing, Judge Frances Gull chastised that it was "shameful ... to characterize his illness as a mental illness to the disrespect of all people in this country that are in fact mentally ill."
Despite this previous statement, Gull recently admitted she too now believes the diagnosis. However, she also believes that while he might be mental ill, he is competent to waive his appeals and ask for the death penalty.
"The [defense's] concession is that Mr. Corcoran suffers from mental illness. That has never been the issue, folks, whether or not Mr. Corcoran suffers from mental illness," Gull stated in a 2003 appeals hearing. "The issue is whether or not he is competent to waive post-conviction review of his convictions and of the death sentence ... The dialogue that I had with Mr. Corcoran, as well as the state deputy attorney general had with him, clearly indicates that Mr. Corcoran understands the proceedings and he satisfied the competency requirements of Indiana Code."
Having lost the appeals process in trial court and post-conviction hearings, the case of Joe Corcoran is now being considered in Federal Habeas District Court. It is here that the final decision will be made as to whether a mentally ill man who commits murder should be put to death as penalty for those crimes.