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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Robbery
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: November 12, 1977
Date of birth: April 14, 1956
Victim profile: Sister Ann Hogan (Roman Catholic nun)
Method of murder: Strangulation
Location: Mobile County, Alabama, USA
Status: Executed by electrocution in Alabama on November 20, 1992

Execution in Alabama for the Killing of a Nun

The New York Times

November 22, 1992

A man was executed in the electric chair of the state prison here on Friday for killing a Roman Catholic nun in a cemetery where she had gone to pray.

The execution of the prisoner, Cornelius Singleton, 36 years old, was the nation's 186th since the 1976 Supreme Court ruling allowing the states to resume use of the death penalty.

Mr. Singleton's execution followed by several hours the United States Supreme Court's refusal to grant him a reprieve. His lawyers had argued that he was slightly retarded, had lacked proper counsel at his trial and, as a black, had been unfairly judged by the all-white jury that convicted him.

Mr. Singleton was found guilty in 1981 of beating and strangling Sister Ann Hogan in a Mobile cemetery where she went to pray on Nov. 12, 1977. He took her watch and other articles, beat and strangled her, then tried to hide the body beneath debris.




On November 20, 1992, the State of Alabama, with the acquiescence of the federal government, executed Cornelius Singleton in the electric chair. The state and federal governments failed to ensure Singleton's right to a fair and impartial trial, free from racial discrimination. The unfair and racially discriminatory trial resulted in Singleton's execution.


On November 12, 1977, Sister Ann Hogan was murdered while praying in a cemetery in Mobile, Alabama. Hogan was found buried under stones and logs in a wooded area adjacent to the cemetery. She died from strangulation and asphyxiation. Singleton was arrested, tried, and convicted for her murder.

Salient Issues

  • There was no physical evidence placing Singleton at the scene of the crime or linking him to the murder.

  • Singleton had no connection to the victim and no motive.

  • Eyewitnesses identified the man thought to be the killer as a white male with blonde hair. Singleton was an African-American man.

  • No other suspects were investigated.

  • Cornelius Singleton had an IQ between 55 and 65. He was illiterate.

  • Singleton unknowingly waived his right to counsel.

  • Singleton signed a dictated confession, but did not understand what he was confessing to or the consequences of his confession. He was led to believe that he was confessing to stealing bed sheets.

  • The prosecutor had Singleton's girlfriend sit on his lap in the interrogation room while the prosecutor was dictating the confession.

  • In order to charge Singleton with a capital crime, the prosecution needed evidence of an additional crime. Police conducted a thorough search for a watch allegedly stolen from the victim, but failed to find it. A brief second search produced the missing watch, which was allegedly found on the mantel of Singleton's grandfather's house.


Cornelius Singleton, an African-American man, was convicted by an all-white jury of capital murder based on a coerced confession, dictated by the prosecution. After his arrest, Singleton was interrogated for several hours. During that time, he unknowingly waived his rights to counsel. His girlfriend was then brought to the police station and made to sit on Singleton's lap while the District Attorney reportedly dictated a confession, which he had Singleton repeat while another officer recorded it as if it was Singleton's own words. Throughout the interrogation, there was a discussion of a recent incident in which Singleton thought he was buying bed sheets from another resident in his boarding house. A neighbor had reported that her sheets were stolen. The discussion was confusing and disorienting for Singleton, who thought he was being questioned about the sheets. Singleton had an IQ between 55 and 65.

Singleton was taken to the cemetery where the murder took place and was questioned about details, despite his apparent lack of knowledge of the crime. According to Singleton, the victim's pager and some papers were on the ground and he was told to pick them up but refused. He was then returned to the police station where he was told to sign the confession. He could not read, but he signed the confession after being told that other charges pending against him would be dropped. In fact, no charges were pending. His girlfriend witnessed his signature.

In order to secure a capital conviction, the state needed to convict Singleton not only of murder, but also of an aggravating circumstance, in this case, robbery. The state alleged the victim's watch was missing and undertook an extensive search of the home of Singleton's grandfather. The search failed to turn up the watch. A second, brief search subsequently was conducted and the watch was found in plain sight on his grandfather's mantel. The watch served as evidence that the victim had been killed during the commission of a felony robbery, which provided the necessary special circumstances for a capital conviction.

There was no evidence to link Singleton to the crime or the crime scene and no evidence that he knew the victim or had a motive to kill the victim. Eyewitnesses in the area described a suspicious white man with long blonde hair lurking around the cemetery on the day of the murder. There was some blood on the victim's blouse and the outline of a hand with fingers pointing downward on the back of the blouse. The state failed to investigate eyewitness accounts and failed to link the forensic evidence to Singleton.

Singleton's lawyers failed to investigate independently, failed to provide an adequate defense, and failed to challenge the selection of an all-white jury. Singleton was convicted quickly and sentenced to death, despite the lack of any clear evidence linking him to the scene of the crime or to the victim and statements that another man had committed the murder.


Appeals were based on the fact that Singleton's original attorney had failed to use his mental retardation for mitigation purposes at sentencing, according to Matthew McDonald, one of his last lawyers. Singleton's appeals were denied. His conviction was then overturned when the US Supreme Court found part of the death penalty statute unconstitutional.

He was retried in 1981 and again convicted and sentenced to death. He never met with the attorney who filed two of his appeals, and for many years while on death row, he never had an attorney. Before Singleton's execution, a church bus of people from Mobile went to the governor's office to plead for clemency. When they arrived they were told that the governor was busy and an aide would talk with them. All the people sat down in the capitol and refused to leave. Around 7:30 p.m., Governor Hunt, who was a minister and also had a retarded daughter, agreed to see a group of them. He did not grant clemency.


Cornelius Singleton was executed in spite of compelling evidence of innocence and numerous allegations of rights violations during the police investigation and the original criminal trial. The State of Alabama failed to protect Singleton's right to a fair and impartial trial and his right to be free from racial discrimination. Such rights violations are especially egregious in light of Singleton's mental incapacity. The state and federal appeals courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, denied relief.


"Let mama know I still love her. Keep that chin up."

— Cornelius Singleton, executed in Alabama on Nov. 20, 1992


Name/DOC # Cornelius Singleton
Address Holman Prison/Deceased November 20, 1992
Date of Birth April 14, 1956
Race Black
Date of Crime November 12, 1977
Age Time of Crime 21
Date Sentenced July 1978
Victims Sister Ann Hogan
Race of Victims White
Relationship to Defendant None
Facts Alleged by State Murder and robbery of Sister Ann Hogan in Catholic Cemetery in Mobile, AL
County of Trial Mobile
Trial Judge Ferrill D. McRae
Trial Attorney Reggie Stephens & Mike Scheuermann (Mobile) 1978; Gary Porter Mobile
Prosecutors Charles Graddick
Trial By Jury
Race of Jurors White
Convicted of Capital murder-sentenced to death
Confession Coerced and dictated by prosecutor
Accomplice Testimony No
Eyewitness Testimony Yes, of other suspects, mainly a white man with long blonde hair
Forensic Testimony None to implicate Singleton.

No fingerprints of his in stolen truck or at crime scene

Blood on blouse of nun with outline of hand on back of blouse–no testing
Jailhouse Snitch Someone Singleton referred to as Pootenany put in cell with him to get confession
Defendant Testimony No-wanted to testify about his innocence
Principal Exculpatory Evidence IQ of 55-67

Mental age of seven

Waived Miranda rights without knowing

Coerced, dictated confession

Girlfriend put on his lap during confession

Illiterate and signed confession thinking he was confessing to stealing sheets

Could not drive standard shift truck
Sentencing Authority Jury (judge had override)
Statutory Aggravating Factor Theft of victim's watch
Non-Statutory Aggravating Factor Previous record
Mitigating Factors IQ, illiteracy, waiving of rights, coerced confession
Evidence of Mental Illness Retardation and or Neurological Damage Retardation
Criminal History 1972–sentenced to 3 years for arson and burglary.

Served full term, released in 1976

Appellate History Based on fact that original attorney failed to use retardation as a mitigating factor for sentencing. Conviction overturned when U.S. Supreme Court found part of death penalty unconstitutional in AL. Retried in 1981, sentenced to death. All appeals failed
Ineffective Assistance? Yes

No investigation

No challenge to all white jury

No challenge to coerced confession

Police Misconduct? Yes

Did not understand waiving of Miranda rights; Police Officer Bell told him where to walk and what to say at cemetery; failure to investigate other suspects

Prosecutorial Misconduct? Yes

Prosecutor Graddick dictated confession

Appellate Counsel Al Pennington-Mobile; Blair Brown (Wash., DC) and M. McDonald (Mobile)


847 F.2d 668

Cornelius SINGLETON, Petitioner-Appellant,
Morris THIGPEN, Commissioner, Alabama Department of
Corrections, Respondent-Appellee.

No. 87-7629.

United States Court of Appeals,
Eleventh Circuit.

May 27, 1988.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama.

Before HILL, FAY and VANCE, Circuit Judges.

VANCE, Circuit Judge:

A jury in the Circuit Court of Mobile County, Alabama found petitioner Cornelius Singleton guilty of first degree murder and robbery, and sentenced him to death.

In this habeas proceeding, petitioner contends that he was denied his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel; that the trial court did not consider his low level of intelligence when it determined that his confession was voluntary; and that the insufficiency of Alabama's coram nobis procedure for collateral attacks denied him due process. The district court denied federal habeas relief. We affirm.


On November 12, 1977 Sister Ann Hogan was killed in a cemetery in Mobile, Alabama.1 Singleton was arrested for the murder of Sister Ann approximately one week after the incident and he confessed to the crime while in police custody.

Although his first conviction was reversed and remanded for a new trial,2 Singleton was convicted again and sentenced to death at a second trial. On direct appeal, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction, but ordered a new sentencing hearing to determine whether the court erred in finding, as an aggravating circumstance, that the crime was committed while petitioner was under sentence of imprisonment. Singleton v. State, 465 So.2d 432, 438 (Ala.Cr.App.1983).

After the sentencing hearing, he was again sentenced to death. The Court of Criminal Appeals and the Alabama Supreme Court affirmed both the conviction and the death sentence. See Ex parte Singleton, 465 So.2d 443 (Ala.1985).

Singleton's two petitions for post-conviction relief under Alabama's coram nobis procedure were denied by the trial court. The first coram nobis petition was dismissed after the parties filed a joint motion to dismiss. After failing to file a timely appeal from the denial of his second coram nobis petition, Singleton's application for an out-of-time appeal was also denied.

Singleton then filed a petition for federal habeas corpus relief and a petition for an evidentiary hearing in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Alabama. The district court denied the writ and the application for an evidentiary hearing.


Singleton claims that he was denied his constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel because his trial counsel failed to go to Singleton's neighborhood to search for possible mitigating evidence prior to sentencing. He argues that trial counsel relied on the "untrained and unskilled family" in making this decision. This claim of ineffective assistance of counsel must be analyzed under the two-prong test articulated in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984).

To prevail on this claim a petitioner must show that: (1) counsel's performance was deficient because it was outside the range of reasonable professional conduct, and (2) this deficiency had a prejudicial effect on his conviction or sentence. Id. at 687, 104 S.Ct. at 2064.

Singleton has failed to satisfy the first prong of the Strickland test for ineffective assistance of counsel. Defense counsel has a duty to investigate for possible mitigating evidence, but this duty only requires a reasonable investigation. See Burger v. Kemp, --- U.S. ----, 107 S.Ct. 3114, 3126, 97 L.Ed.2d 638 (1987); Lightbourne v. Dugger, 829 F.2d 1012, 1025 (11th Cir.1987); Thompson v. Wainwright, 787 F.2d 1447, 1450 (11th Cir.1986), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 107 S.Ct. 1986, 95 L.Ed.2d 825 (1987).

In determining whether trial counsel's conduct is reasonable, the court must apply a "heavy measure of deference to counsel's judgments." Strickland, 446 U.S. at 691, 104 S.Ct. at 2066. Applying this standard we hold that counsel's investigation did not fall below the objective standard of reasonableness under prevailing professional norms. Singleton's lawyer made an effort to investigate possible sources of mitigation evidence.

The record indicates that trial counsel asked Singleton's mother and girlfriend to identify individuals who could testify on behalf of Singleton, but they could not name anyone. Counsel also knew from the presentence report in the first trial that Singleton had a bad reputation and a reputation for violence in his community.

While Singleton asserts that trial counsel failed to investigate adequately for other mitigation evidence, he has not made a proffer of the type of mitigating evidence which would have been found had trial counsel conducted an investigation in the neighborhood.

Singleton also has failed to prove that the alleged deficient investigation had a prejudicial effect on his sentence. The record reveals that during the sentencing hearing trial counsel called Singleton's mother to testify and introduced records from Searcy Hospital which contained three separate mental evaluations of Singleton.3

Trial counsel noted to the court that the evaluations contained in the hospital records comported with the findings of Dr. Claude Brown from his examination of Singleton just prior to the second trial. Because Singleton did not offer affidavits or otherwise advise the district court of any mitigating circumstances which would have had a reasonable probability of undermining the outcome reached by the court, see Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694, 104 S.Ct. at 2068, we conclude that Singleton has not demonstrated that the claimed error resulted in any prejudice. The district court therefore properly held that Singleton was not denied effective assistance of counsel.


Singleton also claims that the district court erroneously denied his request for an evidentiary hearing to consider the voluntariness of his confession. Singleton points out that evidence of his mental state was not presented to the trial court before the court ruled that the confession was voluntary. Both the state trial court, on a motion to suppress the confession, and the federal district court, in the habeas proceeding, found that based on the surrounding circumstances Singleton's confession was voluntary.

Based on the state court findings and an independent review of the record, the district court found that Singleton was in police custody for approximately two and a half hours before making an oral statement confessing to the murder. Prior to questioning, Singleton was read his Miranda rights. The questioning was interrupted by a fifteen to thirty minute private conversation between Singleton and his girlfriend.

After this private conversation, Singleton indicated that he wanted to make a statement. Before his statement Singleton was again advised of his rights and he signed a waiver form acknowledging that he understood his rights.

The district court also found that the written statement was read to Singleton before he signed it. Singleton does not contend that any of the facts surrounding the confession make it involuntary. He only contends that the state court did not consider evidence of his low intelligence, reading and comprehension levels in its determination that the confession was voluntary.

A confession by a defendant will be deemed voluntary if the defendant makes "an independent and informed choice of his own free will, possessing the capability to do so, his will not being overborne by the pressures and circumstances swirling around him." Jurek v. Estelle, 623 F.2d 929, 937 (5th Cir.1980) (in banc). The low intelligence of a defendant will not in itself render a confession involuntary. See Colorado v. Connelly, 479 U.S. 157, 107 S.Ct. 515, 523-24, 93 L.Ed.2d 473 (1986); Dunkins v. Thigpen, No. 87-7529, 847 F.2d 664, 667 (11th Cir.1988).

Rather, "coercive police activity is a necessary predicate" to a finding that the confession by a person with a low intelligence level is involuntary. Connelly, 107 S.Ct. at 522; see United States v. Scheigert, 809 F.2d 1532, 1533 (11th Cir.1987). Singleton cites to mental state evidence which he contends is necessary to the court's inquiry into the voluntariness of the confession. Absent an allegation of coercive police tactics to obtain the statement, however, the confession will not be deemed involuntary. See Connelly, 107 S.Ct. at 522; Bell v. Lynaugh, 828 F.2d 1085, 1092 (5th Cir.), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 108 S.Ct. 310, 98 L.Ed.2d 268 (1987).

Although the district court properly denied Singleton's request for an evidentiary hearing, the court nevertheless did consider the evidence of Singleton's mental limitation, because it was already included in the record. Noting that the petitioner in a habeas proceeding has the burden of proving involuntariness, see Martin v. Wainwright, 770 F.2d 918, 925 (11th Cir.1985), cert. denied, --- U.S. ----, 107 S.Ct. 307, 93 L.Ed.2d 281 (1986), the district court ruled that the "isolated fact of petitioner's low IQ ... cannot tip the scales in his favor." In light of these alternative rulings by the district court, we affirm the district court's denial of the writ on this claim.


For the foregoing reasons,4 the judgment of the district court denying the petition for the writ of habeas corpus is




A detailed statement of the facts is set out in the opinions of the Alabama appellate courts. See Singleton v. State, 465 So.2d 432 (Ala.Cr.App.1983), aff'd, 465 So.2d 443 (Ala.1985)


Petitioner's first conviction was reversed and remanded on authority of Beck v. Alabama, 447 U.S. 625, 100 S.Ct. 2382, 65 L.Ed.2d 392 (1980), and Ritter v. State, 403 So.2d 154 (Ala.1981). See Singleton v. State, 406 So.2d 1024 (Ala.Cr.App.1981)


The parties submitted three depositions to the state court for its consideration of the second coram nobis petition. The state court found that the Searcy records, containing a detailed evaluation of Singleton's mental state from 1973 until the 1981 retrial, were considered by the jury and the court before sentencing


Singleton also contends that the error coram nobis procedure, the avenue for collateral relief under Alabama law, does not adequately protect the constitutional due process rights of capital defendants. We reject this contention. States have no obligation to provide an avenue for collateral relief. See Pennsylvania v. Finley, --- U.S. ----, 107 S.Ct. 1990, 1993, 95 L.Ed.2d 539 (1987); United States v. MacCollom, 426 U.S. 317, 323, 96 S.Ct. 2086, 2090, 48 L.Ed.2d 666 (1976) (plurality opinion). Even if this claim were of constitutional significance, it would be procedurally barred because Singleton failed to raise it in the coram nobis proceeding. In any event, Singleton was not denied an opportunity to have the district court consider any of his claims



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