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Corona v. United States

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

November 18, 2019

VINCENTE CORONA, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          THOMAS W. PHILLIPS SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Petitioner's pro se Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment, Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e) [doc. 620] and Petitioner's counseled Motion for Relief from Final Judgment, Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b) [doc. 624]. The government has responded to Petitioner's counseled motion [doc. 628] and Petitioner has replied [doc. 629]. These matters are now ripe for the Court's review. For the reasons below, Petitioner's Rule 59(e) and 60(b) motions [docs. 620, 624] are DENIED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Petitioner and two co-defendants, Dennis Richardson and Jermaine Hughes, were indicted in 2005 for various drug offenses and other related offenses, including a conspiracy to distribute and to possess with the intent to distribute both cocaine and marijuana. Richardson and Hughes ultimately entered into plea agreements with the United States [docs. 151, 274], but Petitioner opted to proceed to trial. Following a 9-day jury trial, Petitioner was convicted of: (1) conspiring to distribute, and to possess with the intent to distribute, 5 or more kilograms of cocaine and a quantity of marijuana: (2) conspiring to commit money laundering; and (3) three counts of distributing more than 5 kilograms of cocaine. [Doc. 465]. Because of the quantity of cocaine involved, and Petitioner's two prior felony drug convictions, Petitioner was sentenced to a mandatory life sentence. [Doc. 574]. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Petitioner's convictions and sentences. [Doc. 585]. Petitioner sought a writ of certiorari from the Supreme Court, which was denied in February 2013. [Doc. 588].

         Of relevance, at Petitioner's trial, co-defendants Richardson and Hughes testified that Petitioner had supplied them with both cocaine and marijuana for distribution. Additionally, Richard and Kimberly Robinson both testified that Petitioner supplied Richard with cocaine for distribution.

         On November 13, 2014, Petitioner filed a motion to vacate or set aside his sentence, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. [Doc. 592]. In his motion, Petitioner raised one issue-that his co-defendant, Richardson, had recanted his trial testimony, and now stated that Petitioner was only involved in providing him with marijuana for distribution, not cocaine. On October 23, 2017, this Court ordered the government to respond. [Doc. 608]. On December 8, 2017, after receiving an extension of time from the Court, the government responded in opposition to Petitioner's § 2255 motion. [Doc. 613]. Petitioner did not file a reply, and on January 3, 2018, the Court denied the § 2255 motion. [Docs. 617, 618].

         Notably, the Court assumed for purposes of its analysis that Richardson's recantation was newly discovered evidence, and found the § 2255 motion to be timely on this ground. [Doc. 617 at 4]. The Court then explained the standard for granting a new trial based on the recantation of trial testimony, but concluded that the first factor-that the court is “reasonably well satisfied” that the witness' trial testimony was false-was lacking in this case. [Id. at 5]. The undersigned district judge noted that he had presided over Petitioner's trial and heard Richardson's testimony, and concluded that Richardson had testified truthfully at trial. [Id. at 6]. The Court thus concluded that an evidentiary hearing was unnecessary, and denied Petitioner's § 2255 motion. [Id. at 7].

         The Court further addressed whether a certificate of appealability (“COA”) should be granted. [Id.]. The Court quoted the statute governing the issuance of a COA-28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2)-which requires a “substantial showing of a denial of a constitutional right.” The Court also quoted the seminal Supreme Court decision relating to the applicable COA standard, Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473 (2000), which requires that a Petitioner “demonstrate that reasonable jurists would find the district court's assessment of the constitutional claims debatable or wrong.” [Id.]. The Court then concluded that “[a]fter reviewing petitioner's claim, the Court finds that reasonable jurists could not conclude that petitioner's claim is adequate to deserve further review. Because petitioner has failed to make a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right, a certificate of appealability will not issue.” [Id. at 7-8].

         II. ANALYSIS

         After the Court's denial of his § 2255 motion, on January 29, 2018, Petitioner filed a pro se Motion to Alter or Amend the Judgment, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 59(e). [Doc. 620]. In this motion, Petitioner asserts that the Court should reconsider its denial of his § 2255 motion, because he was “deprived of the opportunity to file a reply to the Government's response to his 2255 motion[.]” [Id. at 2]. Petitioner states that, when the Court issued its order denying his § 2255 motion, his counsel was in the process of filing a reply, which “contained factual matters relevant to the decision making process of the 2255 motion.” [Id.].

         Thereafter, on April 18, 2019, Petitioner, through counsel, filed a motion for relief from judgment, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 60(b).[1] [Doc. 624]. Petitioner contends that this Court erroneously denied a COA, based on the same reasons that it denied the § 2255 motion. [Id. at 12]. Petitioner admits that the Court quoted the appropriate standard, but asserts that the Court erred in “pointing only to its merits opinion” to determine that reasonable jurists would not debate Petitioner's claim. [Id. at 13]. Specifically, Petitioner contends that the Court's decision to deny his § 2255 motion without the benefit of an evidentiary hearing is debatable. [Id. at 13-15]. Petitioner cites to the Supreme Court's decision in Buck v. Davis, 137 S.Ct. 759 (2017), which Petitioner alleges “demonstrates that the wrong standard was used to decline COA.” [Id. at 15-16]. Alternatively, Petitioner argues that this Court should treat his Rule 59(e) motion as a timely notice of appeal. [Id. at 16-17].

         The government responds that: (1) this Court reasonably exercised its discretion in declining to hold an evidentiary hearing; (2) the Court properly declined to grant a COA, and Buck is inapplicable, because that case applied to the appellate court, rather than the district court; and (3) the Court did not err in failing to rule on Petitioner's Rule 59(e) motion, because it was a pro se motion filed while Petitioner was represented by counsel, in violation of this Court's local rules. [Doc. 628]. Petitioner, in reply, argues that his Rule 60(b) motion does not attack the decision to deny § 2255 relief, or to deny an evidentiary hearing, but merely attacks the order declining to issue a COA. [Doc. 629 at 3-4]. Petitioner also asserts that his Rule 59(e) motion should be construed as a timely notice of appeal because it “lists the correct case number, and argues that the judgment dismissing his § 2255 motion should be vacated because he was innocent of an offense involving cocaine and he only dealt in marijuana.” [Id. at 5]. Finally, Petitioner contests the government's claim that he was represented at the time that he filed his Rule 59(e) motion, and states that “[t]he government's position defies the facts that the motion was prepared by Mr. Corona, signed by Mr. Corona, and mailed by Mr. Corona from prison to the district court. The motion was clearly not prepared and filed by an attorney but was filed by Mr. Corona[.]” [Id. at 6 (citation omitted)].

         A. Rule 60(b) Motion

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 60(b) allows a court to relieve a party from a ...


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