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Young v. United States

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Greeneville

November 7, 2016

CONNIE J. YOUNG, Petitioner,



         This pro se federal prisoner's motion to vacate, correct, or set aside his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 was remanded to this Court by the Sixth Circuit for the purpose of determining whether Petitioner's attorney, Wayne Stambaugh, gave him ineffective assistance in two instances: (1) by failing to advise him of a plea offer and (2) by incorrectly advising him that the government could not obtain a drug conspiracy conviction without displaying to the jury the physical evidence of the drugs [Doc. 599];[1] and, therefore, without demonstrative evidence of the cocaine, the prosecution could not prove the existence of the five kilograms of cocaine charged in the indictment [Id. p3]. To resolve the claims of ineffective assistance, the Court scheduled an evidentiary hearing and appointed counsel to represent Petitioner at the hearing [Doc. 601].

         Prior to the scheduled evidentiary hearing, Petitioner filed a motion to appoint new counsel and appointed counsel moved to withdraw [Docs. 604, 612 (sealed)]. A hearing was held before the magistrate judge to inquire into the matter, but the problems which prompted the respective motions were not resolved at the hearing [Doc. 610].

         The evidentiary hearing was convened on January 15, 2016. Petitioner indicated that, based on a discussion with his appointed counsel that morning, he wished to withdraw his pro se motion to appoint new counsel. Counsel also moved to withdraw his motion and both motions were granted [Doc. 613]. The evidentiary hearing continued without any further glitch, and Petitioner's appointed counsel continued to represent Petitioner at the evidentiary hearing.

         The Court assumes familiarity with Petitioner's case and discusses only the issues currently under review.


         Mr. Stambaugh testified at the January 15 evidentiary hearing and Petitioner testified on March 4, 2016, after the evidentiary hearing was continued to afford appointed counsel additional time to consult with Petitioner.

         Mr. Stambaugh testified that he had been appointed to serve as Petitioner's counsel after the death of Carey Taylor, Petitioner's previous attorney, and that he had received Petitioner's file, including discovery materials, from the deceased attorney's estate some three weeks after his appointment [Doc. 617, January 15, 2016, Evidentiary Hearing Transcript pp. 25, 31, 36]. Mr. Stambaugh stated that he met with Petitioner three times in the first month following the appointment, eight times prior to the trial, and two times post-trial and that it was obvious that Petitioner had met with Mr. Taylor, since Petitioner knew about the discovery in his case and was aware of the allegations lodged against him [Id. at 18, 35-36]. Counsel related that his client did not believe himself to be guilty and did not believe that he could be convicted since the majority of witnesses did not know his identity. Petitioner understood that the entire case would rest on the testimony of the leader of the conspiracy, Rickey Story [Id. at 18-19].

         Mr. Stambaugh testified that that he was only aware of one plea agreement offered by the government, which he had gone over with his client, that his client had rejected the plea deal, and that his client, in response to the plea offer, had remarked that if he [Petitioner] was going to do 17 years, he would just do life and go to trial [Id. at 21-23]. Mr. Stambaugh was unequivocal in stating that he had only discussed one plea agreement, that he remembered going over one plea agreement, that all he recalled was “this one particular plea agreement, ” and that he did not remember there being another plea agreement or going over another plea agreement, though he acknowledged that he did not know what Petitioner “might have gone over with Carey Taylor” [Id. at 21, 23, 24].

         The plea agreement, as Mr. Stambaugh remembered it, was an agreement to plead guilty to conspiracy to distribute or possess with the intent to distribute 500 grams or more of cocaine, a lesser included offense-described as an “841(b)(1)(B)” offense, rather than the one with which he was charged in the indictment [Id. at 24, 27-30]. Mr. Stambaugh stated that Petitioner had had a prior federal drug conviction, was a very sophisticated client, knew the sentencing guidelines very well, and knew all the statutes under which he was charged [Id. at 29]. Mr. Stambaugh testified that he and his client discussed the sentencing guidelines, and specifically discussed the possible enhancements, the Career Offender Guideline range, the mandatory life sentence he faced if convicted, and that he did not have to be involved personally in distributing the five kilogram amount charged in the indictment [Id. at 23, 28-29, 31]. Attorney Stambaugh said that he had advised Petitioner to accept the plea agreement, but that Petitioner wanted to proceed to trial and that he had desired to go to trial from the beginning [Id. at 23, 30-31]. Mr. Stambaugh stated that it had been Petitioner's “choice to proceed to trial” [Id. at 31].

         Mr. Stambaugh testified that he had never advised a client that the government must produce the actual drugs at trial to sustain a conviction, that he had not told Petitioner that, if the government could not produce the actual drugs at the trial, it could not get a conviction, that he had explained to Petitioner that the quantity of drugs charged in the conspiracy did not have to be brought into the courtroom and shown to the jury for Petitioner to be convicted of conspiracy, and that that his client “absolutely understood the concepts” [Id. at 25-26, 31, 36]. Mr. Stambaugh stated that Petitioner's “biggest issue” was a disbelief that anyone could identify him as playing a role in the conspiracy and that “no one did [identify Petitioner] until we got to Rickey Story, ” [Id. at 31].

         Mr. Stambaugh reiterated that he distinctly remembered discussing with Petitioner an offer from the government to allow him to plead guilty to a § 841(b)(1)(B) offense with a quantity of more than 500 grams, specifically recalled Petitioner's comment that he would just as soon take his chance on a life sentence, rather than the 17-year prison sentence offered to him under the plea deal, and that he “absolutely, absolutely” discussed the possibility of a mandatory life sentence [Id. at 37-39.] Mr. Stambaugh stated that he was shocked by Petitioner's comment, given that he had explained to Petitioner that the plea deal would lower his mandatory life sentence to ten years [Id. at 30]. Mr. Stambaugh said that Petitioner refused to listen to his recommendation that he accept the plea agreement and that Petitioner rejected the plea agreement [Id. at 23, 30].

         In contrast to Mr. Stambaugh's testimony, Petitioner stated, during his testimony on the second day of the evidentiary hearing, that he had not discussed a plea offer with Mr. Taylor, repeatedly denied discussing a plea offer with Mr. Stambaugh, and denied that Mr. Stambaugh had presented him with a proposed plea agreement [Doc. 619, March 4, 2016, Evidentiary Hearing Transcript pp. 10, 14, 17-18, 20, 25, 33]. Petitioner explained that the first time he knew about a proposed plea deal was about three months after the denial of his direct appeal, when he received his file from his appellate attorney and discovered that the file contained a plea agreement which, according to Petitioner, had been communicated to Mr. Taylor [Id. at 10-11].[2]

         Petitioner also testified about a letter that he received through a request under the Freedom of Information Act [Id. at 19]. In the letter, addressed to Mr. Stambaugh and submitted as Exhibit 1 at the evidentiary hearing, the prosecutor explains that she is “enclosing a slightly modified plea agreement” for Petitioner and that a clarification of evidence has warranted a reduction in the quantity of cocaine, from 806 grams to 639 grams, though the prosecutor observes that the amount of cocaine still is well above the 500 gram drug-quantity element of the offense.

         Petitioner filed, as Exhibit 2, a document entitled “Plea Agreement, ” which states that the government and Petitioner have agreed that he will plead guilty to a violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(B) for conspiracy to distribute and to possess with the intent to distribute 500 grams of more of a cocaine and that, due to his prior felony drug convictions, the penalty for the offense is a minimum mandatory sentence of ten years and a maximum of life.

         Petitioner testified that he would have pled guilty to any one of three plea offers. Petitioner stated that he would have pled guilty to what he called the first plea offer, referring to the Agreed Factual Basis, see footnote 2, because it contained a proposal that the amount of cocaine involved in the conspiracy was 255 grams [Id. at 20]. Petitioner testified that he likewise would have pled guilty to the second plea agreement (referring to the letter, specifically the part of the letter mentioning a drug quantity of 806 grams of cocaine as a previously calculated quantity of drugs), knowing that the government already had increased the amount of drugs from 255 grams to 800 grams and fearing that he would be at risk of a further increase in the drug amount if he declined the plea offer [Id.]. Petitioner testified that he also would have accepted the third plea offer, the one “with the 600 gram offer” based on the government's reexamination of the evidence because that was likely to be the last plea offer he would receive from the prosecutor given that the trial date was imminent [Id.].

         Petitioner testified that “‘he' (Stambaugh) never conveyed any of those plea offers to me” and that ‘“he' never communicated none of the plea (sic), I never had a chance to make a choice on whether to accept any of those plea offers” [Id. at 20-21].[3]

         Petitioner acknowledged that, after Mr. Taylor had been appointed to represent him, he had sought the opinion of another attorney, who had explained to him the value of being the first member of a drug conspiracy to enter into a plea bargain with the government and that he had followed that advice by writing a letter to Mr. Taylor, asking counsel to solicit a plea offer [Id. at 21-22]. Petitioner testified that he wrote Mr. Taylor a second letter to clarify that he would agree to a plea bargain only if the offer was for 250 grams, that, given his criminal history, any other plea would not be beneficial to him, and that he would have no other choice than to go to trial [Id. at 22].

         Petitioner testified that his insistence on a plea offer of 250 grams was driven by his confusion as to “the difference between 500 grams and 5 kilo (sic), ” that he did not know at the time he wrote the letter that an offer below 500 grams of cocaine would eliminate a minimum mandatory sentence, and that he pursued a 250 gram offer because that was the amount of cocaine that he himself had sold [Id. at 22-24]. Petitioner acknowledged that he had been sentenced to a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for a prior federal drug charge involving 17 grams of crack ...

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