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Stokes v. United States

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

September 27, 2017

WALLACE M. STOKES, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          CURTIS L. COLLIER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on the motion of pro se petitioner Wallace M. Stokes, Jr. (“Petitioner”) to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 [Doc. 387, “Petition”].[1] Petitioner filed a Memorandum [Doc. 388] with his Petition and attached his Affidavit [Doc. 388-1] to his Memorandum. The Government has responded [Doc. 399] in opposition. The Government has also provided the Affidavit [Doc. 399-1] of Petitioner's counsel Attorney Russell L. Leonard. The parties appeared for an evidentiary hearing on one of the Petitioner's allegations on September 25, 2017. Assistant Federal Defender Gianna Maio represented the Petitioner, who was also present. Assistant United States Attorney Michael D. Porter represented the Government. The Court finds the materials submitted, the evidence and arguments offered at the evidentiary hearing, and the complete record of the underlying criminal case conclusively demonstrate that the Petitioner is not entitled to relief on the claims asserted in his Petition. Accordingly, the Petitioner's motion is DENIED for the reasons stated herein.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         From January 2009 to October 2012, Petitioner conspired with others to manufacture and distribute methamphetamine in Monroe County, Tennessee. [Doc. 130, Plea Agreement at ¶3(a)] On July 10, 2013, Petitioner entered a plea of guilty, pursuant to a written plea agreement [Doc. 130], to conspiracy to manufacture and distribute methamphetamine before United States Magistrate Judge Susan K. Lee [Docs. 208 &amp. 215]. On July 31, 2013, the undersigned accepted [Doc. 232] the Defendant's guilty plea. On November 7, 2013, the Court sentenced Stokes to three hundred (300) months of imprisonment [Doc. 341]. The Judgment of conviction [Doc. 343] was entered on November 19, 2013. Petitioner did not file a notice of direct appeal. Petitioner was represented by attorney Russell L. Leonard (“Counsel”) at all stages of the proceedings. Petitioner now contends that he received the ineffective assistance of counsel [Doc. 387].

         Petitioner's rearraingment hearing was held before Judge Lee on July 10, 2013. When Petitioner was asked if anyone had threatened him into entering the plea agreement, he hesitated [Doc. 254');">254');">254');">254');">254');">254');">254');">254');">254');">254');">254');">254');">254');">254');">254');">254]. This led to a lengthy discussion of Petitioner's belief that he had been threatened with the death penalty in order to give his incriminating pre-indictment statements.[2] Judge Lee then recessed the hearing and allowed the Petitioner to consult with Counsel about the pre- indictment statements and whether he wanted to go forward with his change of plea [Id.]. After this consultation, Counsel informed the Court, out of the presence of Petitioner, that the Petitioner “understands what transpired before the indictment, before his arrest, whether he feels he was duped or not, that there were choices that he could have made then that he didn't make.” [Id.] Counsel confirmed that, if he had thought there was a basis for filing a motion to suppress the Petitioner's statements, he would have done so. Judge Lee reiterated she was willing to continue the hearing for a week if needed. Counsel declined, stating he had already discussed the case with his client “as thoroughly as he had ever discussed a case with a client.” [Id.] When Petitioner returned to the courtroom, Counsel stated he and the Petitioner had previously discussed the pre-indictment statements, he had advised the Petitioner that there was no basis for challenging those statements, and the Petitioner had decided to enter into a plea agreement instead. Petitioner agreed he was guilty and went forward with the change of plea.

         At Petitioner's sentencing hearing on November 7, 2013, Counsel argued for a downward departure based on the Government “promising” or “assuring” Petitioner he would receive a lighter punishment for his cooperation [Doc. 397');">397');">397');">397]. The Government denied giving such assurances. To resolve the dispute, Agent Melton testified. Agent Melton denied making any such promises to Petitioner and testified he told Petitioner only that he would “pass his statements along to the prosecutor's office to see what his involvement was or was not in the conspiracy.” [Id.] Counsel cross-examined Agent Melton, during which Petitioner called Agent Melton a liar, prompting a lecture from the Court [Id.]. The Court found no such promises were made, denied Petitioner's motion for a downward variance, and sentenced Petitioner to 300 months' imprisonment.

         In January 2014, Petitioner procured a copy of the docket sheet in his case, which showed no notice of appeal had been filed. In early March 2014, Petitioner instructed his sister to request materials in Petitioner's case file from Counsel for the purposes of Petitioner challenging his sentence [Doc. 376-1]. Counsel's office sent the requested materials to Petitioner's sister. Petitioner then wrote Counsel another letter on March 19, 2014, requesting additional materials [Doc. 374]. Petitioner also asked in this letter why Counsel had not filed a notice of appeal as Petitioner had directed in his letter to Counsel two days after the sentencing hearing.[3] Counsel responded with a letter on April 3, 2014 explaining he had not received a letter from Petitioner instructing Counsel to file an appeal [Doc. 376-2].

         Petitioner wrote Counsel again on April 8, 2014, alerting him that he (Petitioner) had filed a § 2255 motion because Counsel had not filed a notice of appeal as instructed [Doc. 399-1]. Counsel responded on April 15, 2014, reiterating that he had never received a letter from Petitioner asking him to file an appeal [Doc. 376-3]. Counsel further noted “[h]ad [he] received such a letter, it is a simple procedure to file a notice of appeal, ” and would have done so [Id.].

         On September 25, 2017, the undersigned held an evidentiary hearing with regard to the Petitioner's contention that he received the ineffective assistance of counsel because Mr. Leonard failed to consult with him about filing a direct appeal and failed to file a direct appeal when expressly asked to do so. At the hearing, Counsel testified he discussed with Petitioner before his rearraignment hearing the pros and cons of pleading guilty and the rights Petitioner would give up by so pleading. Counsel did not meet with Petitioner after his sentencing hearing. Counsel noted, however, that it was his practice to meet with clients before sentencing to explain the procedure and post-sentencing options. Counsel testified he did meet with Petitioner before his sentencing hearing, but could not recall specifically whether he consulted with Petitioner about an appeal during this meeting.[4]

         Counsel further testified that he interacted with Petitioner neither immediately following the sentencing hearing nor in the weeks that followed. He sent Petitioner no written correspondence and received no mail or phone calls from the Petitioner. Counsel testified the first time Petitioner contacted him after the sentencing hearing was through his March 19, 2014 letter requesting documents from his case file and asking why Counsel had not filed a notice of appeal. Counsel specifically denied receiving a letter from Petitioner two days after the sentencing hearing instructing him to file an appeal.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Section 2255 of Title 28 of the United States Code permits a prisoner in custody under sentence of a federal court to move the court that imposed the sentence to vacate, correct, or set aside that sentence, on the grounds:

the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack . . . .

28 U.S.C. § 2255. This Court has jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331. Petitioner has the burden of establishing any claim asserted in the petition. See Bowers v. Battles, 568 F.2d 1, 5 (6th Cir. 1977); Mayes v. United States, 93 F.Supp.2d 882, 886 (E.D. Tenn. 2000).

         To obtain relief pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a petitioner must demonstrate “(1) an error of constitutional magnitude; (2) a sentence imposed outside the statutory limits; or (3) an error of fact or law that was so fundamental as to render the entire proceeding invalid.” Short v. United States, 471 F.3d 686, 691 (6th Cir. 2006) (quoting Mallett v. United States, 334 F.3d 491, 496-97 (6th Cir. 2003)). He “must clear a significantly higher hurdle than would exist on direct appeal” and establish a “fundamental defect in the proceedings which necessarily results in a complete miscarriage of justice or an egregious error violative of due process.” Fair v. United States, 157 F.3d 427, 430 (6th Cir. 1998).

         In his § 2255 motion, the Petitioner contends that he received the ineffective assistance of counsel. The Sixth Amendment provides, in pertinent part, “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right . . . to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” U.S. Const. amend. VI. A defendant has a Sixth Amendment right not just to counsel, but to “reasonably effective assistance” of counsel. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). A petitioner alleging ineffective assistance of counsel must satisfy the two-part test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. at 687; see also, Huff v. United States, 734 F.3d 600, 606 (6th Cir. 2013). First, the petitioner must establish, by identifying specific acts or omissions, that counsel's performance was deficient and that counsel did not provide “reasonably effective assistance, ” Id., as measured by “prevailing professional norms.” Rompilla v. Beard, 545 U.S. 374, 380 (2005). Counsel is presumed to have provided effective assistance, and petitioner bears the burden of showing otherwise. Mason v. Mitchell, 320 F.3d 604, 616-17 (6th Cir. 2003); see also Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689 (a reviewing court “must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that . . . the challenged action might be considered sound . . . strategy”) (internal citation omitted).

         Second, the petitioner must demonstrate “a reasonable probability that, but for [counsel's acts or omissions], the result of the proceedings would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. “An error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgment of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment.” Id. at 691; see also Smith v. Robbins, 528 U.S. 259, 285-86 (2000). If a petitioner fails to prove that he sustained prejudice, the Court need not decide whether counsel's performance was deficient. See United States v. Hynes, 467 F.3d 951, 970 (6th Cir. 2006) (holding that alleged “flaws” in trial counsel's representation did not warrant new trial where the claims, even if true, did not demonstrate that the jury would have reached a different conclusion). The Strickland Court emphasized both prongs must be established in order to meet the claimant's burden, and if either prong is not satisfied the claim must be rejected, stating:

Although we have discussed the performance component of an ineffectiveness claim prior to the prejudice component, there is no reason for a court deciding an ineffective assistance claim to approach the inquiry in the same order or even to address both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an insufficient showing on one . . . . If it is easier to dispose of an ineffectiveness claim on the ground of lack of sufficient prejudice, which we expect will often be so, that course should be followed. Courts should strive to ensure ...

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