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Chapman v. United States

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Alexandria Division

April 12, 2016

Stephanie Chapman, Petitioner,
v.
United States of America Respondent. Civil Action No. 1:15-cv-l 047

MEMORANDUM OPINION

LIAM O'GRADY JUDGE

This matter comes before the Court on Petitioner Stephanie Chapman's Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Chapman asserts that her sentence should be vacated because her counsel provided ineffective assistance. For the reasons set forth below, the resolution of the Motion turns on an evidentiary issue. The Court will, therefore, hold an evidentiary hearing to resolve this issue and will issue a final Order on this Motion after that hearing has been held, I. Background

On October 17, 2013, a jury found Chapman guilty of Conspiracy to Commit Sex TrafiScking of a Child (18 U.S.C. § 1594(c)); Sex Trafficking of a Child (18 U.S.C. § 1591(a)); and Interstate Transportation of a Minor for Purposes of Prostitution (18 U.S.C. § 2423(a)).[1] Chapman decided to testify at trial. During her testimony she admitted many of the essential facts necessary to support her conviction and corroborated much of the evidence presented by the government. Chapman's testimony also contained numerous false exculpatory statements.

On January 24, 2014, this Court sentenced Chapman to eleven years imprisonment. Chapman, through her counsel, Alfred Lincoln Robertson, Jr., appealed her conviction to the Fourth Cuxuit Court of Appeals, raising two arguments: (1) Sufficiency of the Evidence; and (2) the District Court's failure to give a mistake of fact instruction that defense counsel had tendered, The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction on January 7, 2015. United States V. Chapman, 589 F.App'x. 159 (4th Cu-. 2015) (per curiam) (unpublished). On August 17, 2015, Chapman filed the instant motion for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. After obtaining an extension of time and an affidavit from defense counsel, the government filed an opposition brief on October 6, 2015. Dkt. No. 98. Chapman then filed an affidavit in support of her Motion on October 29, 2015. Dkt. No. 99.

11. Discussion

A petitioner is entitled to relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 if she demonstrates either: (1) the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States; (2) the sentencing court was without jurisdiction to impose the sentence; (3) the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law; or (4) the sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack. 28 U.S.C. § 2255. When considering a § 2255 motion, a federal court "must hold an evidentiary hearing when the petitioner alleges facts which, if true, would entitle her to relief" United States v. Magini, 973 F.2d 261, 264 (4th Cir. 1992).

Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are properly brought in a § 2255 motion. United States v. King, 119 F.3d 290, 295 (4th Cir. 1997). In Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the Supreme Court articulated a two-part standard for evaluating claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. The first prong of the Strickland test requires a showing that counsel failed to provide reasonably effective assistance; that is, that counsel's conduct fell below an objective standard of reasonableness in light of the circumstances at the time. Id. at 687-88, 690. There is "a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id. at 689. The second prong requires the defendant to show prejudice. Id. at 694. Under this prong, the petitioner must "show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. The burden of proving both prongs is on the petitioner who seeks to challenge the conviction, id. at 696-97, and the petitioner must prove both prongs by a preponderance of the evidence. Berry v. United States, 884 F.Supp.2d 453, 457 (E.D. Va. 2012).

Chapman claims that her counsel provided ineffective assistance at both trial and on appeal. Chapman asserts that at trial, her attorney failed to (1) properly prepare her case; (2) interview all witnesses before trial and at trial; (3) present exculpatory evidence on her behalf; (4) properly advise as to options in taking a plea bargain; and (5) have her psychiatrically evaluated. Chapman claims that her attorney ineffectively pursued her appeal because he failed to (1) preserve all objections at trial; (2) raise all potentially appealable issues at the time of filing her appeal; and (3) completely brief all appealable issues. Chapman's initial motion provides no details to support any of these claims. Chapman's reply brief, however, contests several points raised by the government.

A. Whether Defense Counsel Provided Ineffective Assistance at Trial

(1) Whether Counsel Interviewed All Witnesses Before and During Trial[2]

Petitioner argues that defense counsel was ineffective for failing to interview all witnesses before and during trial. The only witness that Petition identifies that defense counsel should have interviewed is a tow truck driver that towed her car on the day she was arrested. According to Petitioner, on the day of her arrest, March 12, 2013, her vehicle broke down around 7:30 a.m. while she was driving the son of her co-defendant, Ronnie Holmes, to school. A tow truck driver picked up the vehicle around 10:00 or 11:00 a.m. and kept the vehicle until around 4:00 p.m. Petitioner contends that the tow truck driver could have testified that the victim in this case was not in the car when it was picked up. Further, Petitioner contests that because the vehicle was kept by the tow truck driver until 4:00 p.m., she had no way of picking the victim up that day.

The facts asserted by Petitioner do not contradict any evidence presented at trial. The fact that Chapman's car was towed on the day of her arrest was discussed at trial. Evidence was presented that Chapman's green Ford Explorer was towed to the Southern Motel on March 12, 2013, after it had broken down on Interstate 495. See, e.g., Trial Trans. Vol. 1, Dkt. No. 80, at 32-33. Further, no evidence was ever presented that the victim was present in the car when it broke down or that Chapman picked the victim up that day.

Petitioner also does not explain how any of these facts would affect the outcome of her trial. The government proved beyond a reasonable doubt the essential elements of each of the three offenses Chapman was convicted of through die testimony of over ten witnesses and many exhibits. Chapman herself, who decided to testify, corroborated much of the government's evidence. Chapman has not identified which element of which offense the tow truck driver's testimony would disprove. Accordingly, the Court finds that even if defense counsel had interviewed the tow truck driver and presented his testimony at trial, it would not have changed the outcome of the trial. Petitioner has, therefore, failed to prove prejudice. Plaintiff also has not explained why defense counsel's failure to investigated or present the tow truck driver at trial was unreasonable, considering the insignificance of this testimony, as explained above.

Because neither element of the Strickland test has been met, the Court declines to find defense counsel was ineffective for failing to interview ...


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