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United States v. Wolff

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

July 8, 2019

JAMES WOLFF, Defendant.



         This matter is before the Court on the Defendant's Motion to Withdraw Plea of Guilty [doc. 60]. The Court conducted a hearing on this matter on July 1, 2019 [doc. 65]. For the reasons stated herein, Defendant's motion [doc. 60] is DENIED.


         On March 20, 2018, Defendant was indicted on two offenses [doc. 1]. Count One charged Defendant with threatening to assault and murder a person assisting an officer or employee of the U.S. Social Security Administration (“SSA”) with intent to impede, intimidate, and interfere with the person while engaged in and on account of the performance of his or her official duties and with the intent to retaliate against the person on account of the performance of the person's official duties, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 115. Count Two charged Defendant with attempt to intimidate and impede an officer, employee, and contractor of the SSA including any state employee of a disability determination service acting in an official capacity to carry out their duties, in violation of 42 U.S.C. §1320(a)-8(b). On January 16, 2019, the Defendant pled guilty to Count Two, which is a misdemeanor.

         This case stems from the denial of Defendant's application for disability benefits. After a telephone interview[1] on February 28, 2018 with disability compensation investigator Simchah Edwards, Defendant left a series of threatening and harassing voice mail messages in which he threatened to kill her and others. He also stated that he understood why people would get a gun and “shoot up a place” or “go postal.” He admitted making these statements when he was interviewed by law enforcement on March 8, 2018.

         Defendant initially retained Robert Kurtz to represent him in this matter. Mr. Kurtz filed a motion to dismiss Count 1 of the indictment, which was the felony count, in June of 2018 [doc. 18]. Mr. Kurtz also filed a motion for a psychiatric examination to determine Defendant's competency [doc. 20]. The Court granted the motion for a psychiatric examination, and ordered Defendant to undergo a mental examination [doc. 30]. In a psychiatric report after this examination, Dr. Andrew Demick concluded that Defendant was “very likely experiencing significant mental health difficulties” but was nevertheless able to assist in his defense and competent to stand trial [doc. 32]. The Court found Defendant competent to proceed to trial [doc. 35].

         While the motion to dismiss Count 1 was pending, Defendant, on December 28, 2018, entered into a written plea agreement with the government [doc. 44]. In the agreement, Defendant agreed to plead guilty to Count 2, the misdemeanor charge, and the government agreed to move to dismiss Count 1, the felony charge [id. at 1]. Within the plea agreement, Defendant stipulated to a factual recitation of the events supporting his plea [id. at 2-3]. The plea agreement stated that Defendant was pleading guilty because he was in fact guilty, and he understood that he was giving up several rights, including the right to plead not guilty [id. at 3-4]. Both Defendant and Mr. Kurtz signed the plea agreement [id. at 8].

         At the change of plea hearing, on January 16, 2019, Defendant was placed under oath [doc. 62 at 3]. The Court then asked Defendant several questions about his interactions with Mr. Kurtz, and Defendant stated that he had been given sufficient time to review the indictment with Mr. Kurtz, had told Mr. Kurtz everything about his case, believed that Mr. Kurtz was fully aware of all the facts on which the charge was based, had been advised by Mr. Kurtz of the nature and meaning of the charge and any words in the indictment that Defendant did not understand, had been advised by Mr. Kurtz as to every element of the charged offense and any available defense [id. at 4-6]. The Court then asked Defendant if he was “satisfied with Mr. Kurtz's advice and the representation of you by Mr. Kurtz, ” and Defendant responded “yes” [id. at 6].

         Defendant confirmed that he understood that, by pleading guilty, he was waiving his right to a trial of any kind, and the rights associated with a trial [id. at 7]. The Court then asked Defendant if “any person, including an officer or agent of the government put any pressure on [him] mentally or physically to force [him] to plead guilty, ” and Defendant responded “no” [id. at 8]. The government then read the factual basis contained in the plea agreement in open court [id. at 10-14]. The following exchange then occurred between the Court and the Defendant:

         Q: Mr. Wolff, did you hear the Assistant United States Attorney as she related what the government says that you did in your case?

A: Yes, I did.
Q: Do you agree that that's what you did?
A: There's some slight inaccuracies there, yes.
Q: Okay. But do you agree that basically, you have committed the acts set forth by the government in its statement of ...

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