United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Danville Division
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
ROBERT S. BALLOU, Magistrate Judge.
Petitioner Chadriquez Williams ("Williams") filed a Motion to Vacate, Set Aside or Correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, contending that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because his attorney (1) failed to convey a plea agreement from the Government and (2) failed to advise that he may be held criminally liable through an aiding and abetting theory. I conducted an evidentiary hearing upon the District Judge referring Williams's motion to me for disposition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1). I have considered the evidence presented, the legal arguments of counsel, and the applicable law. I conclude that Williams has failed to establish that he received constitutionally ineffective assistance of his counsel, and therefore RECOMMEND DENYING Williams's motion to vacate. Dkt. No. 126.
I. Procedural History
On November 12, 2009, a federal grand jury returned a three count indictment charging Williams with one count of possession with the intent to distribute marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) (Count One) and two counts of discharging a firearm in relation to a drug trafficking offense, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (Counts Two and Three). Dkt. No. 3. Because Williams had a prior drug trafficking conviction, he faced up to 10 years of incarceration on the marijuana charge and a mandatory minimum of 10 years on each firearms charge. 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii); 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(D). On August 4, 2010, a jury convicted Williams on all three counts (Dkt. No. 64) and the District Court later sentenced Williams to 18 months on Count One, 120 months on Count Two, and 300 months on Count Three, all to be served consecutively. Dkt. No. 77.
On appeal, the Government moved to remand the case to the District Court to dismiss one of the § 924(c) counts to comply with the U.S. Department of Justice policy prohibiting multiple § 924(c) charges based on a single predicate drug trafficking offense. Dkt. No. 103. The Fourth Circuit remanded for this purpose, and the District Court later granted the Government's motion to dismiss Count Three. Dkt. No. 105. The District Court resentenced Williams to 18 months on Count One and 342 months in prison on Count Two on October 18, 2011. Dkt. No. 108. Williams again appealed after resentencing, and the Fourth Circuit found no error and affirmed. United States v. Williams, 481 F.Appx. 851 (4th Cir. 2012) (per curiam).
On March 25, 2013, Williams filed the present motion to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, asserting six grounds for relief. Dkt. No. 126. The District Court dismissed all but two claims for ineffective assistance of counsel that: (1) counsel failed to convey a plea offer and, (2) counsel failed to advise him that a jury could convict him on a theory of aiding and abetting the underlying criminal conduct. Dkt. No. 150. I have conducted an evidentiary hearing on the issues, heard the argument of counsel and considered the applicable law, and the matter is now ripe for disposition.
Williams's convictions arise from a drug deal gone bad. The Government's evidence at trial showed that on August 28, 2009, Omar Marques Turner met Williams at a house in Martinsville, Virginia to purchase marijuana. During this transaction, Turner grabbed the marijuana from Williams and ran out of the house. Williams ran onto the front porch and fired his handgun at Turner as he fled the house. Turner reached his vehicle unharmed and returned to his residence, where he met his friend Michael Hudson.
A short time later, Williams and another associate, Joseph Hairston, were driving in Turner's neighborhood when they saw Turner and Hudson walking in front of Turner's house. Turner testified at trial that he observed Williams step out of his vehicle and fire a high-powered rifle in the direction of Hudson and Turner. Williams shot Hudson multiple times, causing serious injury. Turner escaped without injury.
At trial, Williams acknowledged that the he arranged the marijuana deal between Hairston and Turner, but that Turner pulled the gun out during the altercation and that the gun discharged during a scuffle. Williams denied that he knew anyone brought a gun to the drug transaction and further denied being present when Hudson was shot.
In light of Williams's testimony that he brokered the drug deal between Hairston and Turner, the Government sought and the Court instructed the jury that it could find Williams guilty if he aided and abetted in the commission of the underlying offenses. Dkt. No. 62. The jury verdict form finding Williams guilty does not indicate whether the jury determined that Williams was a principal in each count or if he aided and abetted the conduct. Dkt. No. 64.
Williams had several attorneys during the life of his criminal case, but he focuses his claims of ineffective assistance on the representation provided by James R. McGarry, Esq., who represented Williams in the months leading up to and during trial. McGarry had previously represented Williams in related state charges.
At the evidentiary hearing, Williams testified that McGarry never discussed or conveyed any plea agreements, and that McGarry stated that Williams faced about the same sentence- roughly 15 years-regardless of whether he was found guilty at trial or accepted a plea agreement. Williams testified that he did not know a jury could find him guilty on an aiding and abetting theory and that he first learned that the Government sought to convict him on this theory when the court read the jury instructions to the jury. Williams testified that he would have pleaded guilty and taken 15 years had he known of his exposure under an aiding and abetting theory. At another point during testimony, Williams stated that he would have pleaded guilty to all three counts even without the benefit of plea agreement. In Williams's words, he was "in the middle of a drug deal gone bad" and that he would have never proceeded to trial and wasted anyone's time. On cross examination, however, Williams firmly denied his involvement with the gun charges, and testified that he was not aware of a firearm at the drug deal until it was discharged.
McGarry testified at the evidentiary hearing that he advised Williams that, without a plea agreement, he faced roughly the same penalty regardless of whether he pleaded guilty or was found guilty at trial. Furthermore, McGarry stated that he had informally discussed a plea agreement with the Assistant United States Attorney, but that he was never given a formal plea offer from the Government. McGarry's file did contain a written plea agreement which the government had extended to Williams through his previous counsel. McGarry's notes reflect his discussions with the Government about various plea agreement possibilities, including the counts to which Williams could plead guilty and the enhancements to the penalties which the Government may seek. At no time did McGarry discuss with the Government any possible plea option which would yield less than 15 years of incarceration. Dkt. No. 160-1. McGarry testified that he discussed these possibilities with Williams and that McGarry thought that he could get the Government to agree to a sentence in the range of 15 years, but that no such offer was ever formally made. McGarry stated that Williams had no interest in ...