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Wells v. United States

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

June 13, 2016



          James C. Cacheris United States District Court Judge

         This matter is before the Court on petition from Mario Wells (“Wells” or “Petitioner”), pro se, to vacate, set, aside or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 due to ineffective assistance of counsel and the Government’s failure to recommend a sentence reduction. [Dkt. 102.] Petitioner also requests to appoint counsel in this matter. [Dkt. 117.] For the following reasons, the Court will deny Petitioner’s motions.

         I. Background

         On April 15, 2014, Petitioner pleaded guilty to Count One of an Indictment charging him with conspiracy to distribute 100 grams or more of heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 846. Because of the quantity of heroin involved in the conspiracy and because of Petitioner’s prior felony drug conviction, Petitioner was subject to a statutory mandatory minimum sentence of ten years imprisonment. See Id. § 841(b)(1)(B)(i). This mandatory minimum was disclosed in the plea agreement and in the plea colloquy before the Honorable Claude Hilton. (See Plea Agreement [Dkt. 76] ¶ 1; Plea Tr. [Dkt. 108] at 4.)

         Petitioner appeared before the undersigned Judge for sentencing on July 10, 2014. The presentence investigation report (“PSR”) noted, and all parties agreed, that a statutory mandatory minimum of ten years imprisonment applied. (SEALED PSR [Dkt. 88] ¶ 5; Sent. Tr. [Dkt. 109] at 4.) After hearing argument from the parties, the Court sentenced Petitioner to the mandatory minimum of 120 months, with credit for time served, followed by an eight-year supervised release term. (Sent Tr. at 13.)

         On February 9, 2015, the Government filed a motion under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 35(b) to reduce Petitioner’s sentence by twenty percent due to his substantial assistance to the law enforcement’s efforts to investigate the heroin conspiracy. (SEALED Mem. in Supp. [Dkt. 95].) The Court held a hearing on the motion on February 19, 2015. (SEALED Minute Entry [Dkt. 98].) At the hearing, Petitioner agreed with the recommended reduction of twenty percent. (Id.)

         Court-appointed attorney Bruce Johnson represented Petitioner throughout the above three proceedings.

         In October 2015, Petitioner filed the present motion to vacate under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (Petition [Dkt. 102].) Petitioner asserts three grounds for relief: (1) Johnson was ineffective for failing to advise Petitioner that his guilty plea would expose him to a mandatory minimum ten-year sentence; (2) Johnson was ineffective for failing to object to the attribution of coconspirators’ conduct to Petitioner at sentencing; and (3) the Government failed to recommend a fifty-percent sentence reduction as allegedly promised. The Government filed a memorandum opposing the petition, which included an affidavit from attorney Johnson. (Mem. in Opp’n [Dkt. 110]; Johnson Aff. [Dkt. 110-1].) After the Court provided the notice required by Roseboro v. Garrison, 528 F.2d 309, 310 (4th Cir. 1975), Petitioner filed a letter reply memorandum.[1] This matter is now ripe for disposition.

         II. Standard of Review

         A motion to vacate under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 allows a prisoner to challenge a sentence “imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a).[2]The petitioner bears the burden of demonstrating his grounds for relief by a preponderance of the evidence. See Hall v. United States, 30 F.Supp.2d. 883, 889 (E.D. Va. 1998).

         A claim of ineffective assistance of counsel is a well-recognized basis for seeking § 2255 relief. See United States v. King, 119 F.3d 290, 295 (4th Cir. 1997). The Strickland standard for evaluating an ineffective assistance claim is also familiar, requiring a petitioner to prove (1) his counsel’s performance was deficient; and (2) the deficient performance prejudiced the petitioner. See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 694 (1984).

         Proving deficient performance requires a showing that “counsel’s representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, ” and that the “acts and omissions” of counsel were, in light of all the circumstances, “outside the range of professionally competent assistance.” Id. at 688-90. Such a determination “must be highly deferential, ” with a “strong presumption that counsel’s conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Id. at 689; see also Burket v. Angelone, 208 F.3d 172, 189 (4th Cir. 2000).

         Satisfying Strickland’s prejudice prong requires a showing that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” 466 U.S. at 694. “A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id.; accord Lovitt v. True, 403 F.3d 171, 181 (4th Cir. 2005).

         In the context of alleged ineffective assistance regarding a guilty plea, the prejudice analysis is modified. See Missouri v. Frye, 132 S.Ct. 1399, 1409 (2012). “In cases where a defendant complains that ineffective assistance led him to accept a plea offer as opposed to proceeding to trial, the defendant will have to show ‘a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.’” Missouri, 132 S.Ct. at 1409 (quoting Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985)).

         A petitioner basing a claim of ineffective assistance on a guilty plea also faces the “formidable barrier” of overcoming “the representations of the defendant, his lawyer, and the prosecutor” at the plea colloquy. Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 73-74 (1977). Declarations made “in open court carry a strong presumption of veracity, ” and the “subsequent presentation of conclusory allegations unsupported by specifics is subject to summary dismissal, as are contentions that in the face of the record are wholly incredible.” Id. at 74 (citing Machibroda v. United States, 368 U.S. 487, 495 (1962)). Thus, “in the absence of extraordinary circumstances, allegations in a § 2255 motion that directly contradict the petitioner’s sworn statements made during a properly conducted Rule 11 colloquy are always ‘palpably incredible’ and ‘patently frivolous or false.’” United States v. Lemaster, 403 F.3d 216, 221-22 (4th ...

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