United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division
Michael F. Urbanski United States District Judge.
Kathleen Williams, a federal inmate proceeding pro se, has
filed a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct her sentence
pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Williams alleges that her
counsel never told her that she could enter into an
"open plea, " or plead guilty without a plea
agreement. By order entered June 8, 2016, the court concluded
that it was unable to resolve the issue on the briefs, and
ordered an evidentiary hearing. Following that hearing, and
after reviewing the record and briefs from Williams and the
government, the court concludes that Williams has not stated
any meritorious claim for relief under § 2255 and that
the government's motion to dismiss must be granted.
April 19, 2012, a federal grand jury indicted Williams and
co-defendants in a 29-count indictment. Williams was charged
with conspiring to distribute and manufacture 280 grams or
more of a mixture and substance containing a detectable
amount of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U.S.C.
§§ 841(a)(1) and 841(b)(1)(A). The court appointed
counsel for Williams. She proceeded to trial and the jury
returned a guilty verdict. A sentencing hearing was held on
April 17, 2013. At sentencing, the court determined that
Williams' total offense level was 37 (including a
three-point enhancement for a leadership position), her
criminal history category was I, resulting in an advisory
guideline range of 210 to 262 months' incarceration.
Williams maintained her innocence at sentencing. During her
allocution she stated that she did "not [want to] go to
prison and say if I'm going to spend all this time in
prison, I might as well should have did it." Sent.
Hr'g Tr. at 64, ECF No. 523. She ended her statement to
the court by requesting a sentence at the low end of her
guideline range: "But 20-some years taken out of my life
for something I know in my heart I know I really didn't
do, that's all I'm asking." Id. at 65.
The court sentenced Williams to 210 months.
appealed asserting that the district court erred by failing
to grant a mistrial and imposing a three-level enhancement
for her role in the offense. The Fourth Circuit Court of
Appeals affirmed her conviction and sentence. Williams filed
the instant § 2255 motion, arguing that her trial
counsel provided ineffective assistance because he never told
Williams that she could plead guilty without a plea
agreement. On August 19, 2016, the court held an evidentiary
hearing, Williams testified that she met with trial counsel
only two or three times total. She stated that at her first
meeting with counsel, she admitted that she had received
money knowing that it was proceeds from drug sales, but that
she had never sold drugs. She testified that she would have
been interested in pleading guilty to receiving drug money
but counsel told her that she would have to testify against
her son and co-defendant, Antonio Williams, which she refused
to do. She claimed that counsel never told her that she could
plead guilty without a plea agreement from the government and
that at a meeting in which they discussed the possibly of
pleading guilty, a probation officer was present. Williams
also testified that counsel did not prepare for trial and
never explained to her the elements of the charged offense,
his trial strategy, or how the sentencing guidelines would be
calculated and her possible sentencing range.
trial counsel also testified at the evidentiary hearing. He
stated that he met with Williams seven or eight times and
informed her that she could plead guilty, either with or
without a plea agreement. He advised her to cooperate with
the government because she was facing the possibility of a
serious sentence. Counsel testified that when he met with
Williams to discuss the possibility of pleading guilty,
nobody else was present. After receiving a proposed plea
agreement from the government, he stated that he communicated
its terms to Williams but she got upset that he was talking
to the government about plea negotiations, expressed no
interest in pleading guilty and denied any involvement in the
conspiracy. Counsel sent an email to the Assistant United
States Attorney that "Nikki will not take a plea;"
he stated that he worded the email that way because Williams
refused to admit her involvement in the conspiracy and
expressed no desire to plead guilty to any plea even after he
had done everything he could to explain to her the benefits
of pleading guilty. Resp. to § 2255, Ex. D, ECF No.
state a viable claim for relief under § 2255, a
petitioner must prove: (1) that his sentence was
"imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the
United States;" (2) that "the court was without
jurisdiction to impose such a sentence;" or (3) that
"the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by
law, or is otherwise subject to collateral attack." 28
U.S.C. § 2255(a). Williams bears the burden of proving
grounds for a collateral attack by a preponderance of the
evidence. Jacobs v. United States, 350 F.2d 571, 574
(4th Cir. 1965).
defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to effective legal
assistance. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668,
687 (1984). The proper vehicle for a defendant to raise an
ineffective assistance of counsel claim is by filing a §
2255 motion. United States v. Baptiste, 596 F.3d
214, 216 n.1 (4th Cir. 2010). However, ineffective assistance
claims are not lightly granted; "[t]he benchmark for
judging any claim of ineffectiveness must be whether
counsel's conduct so undermined the proper functioning of
the adversarial process that the [proceeding] cannot be
relied on as having produced a just result."
Strickland, 466 U.S. at 686. Accordingly, in order
to establish a viable claim of ineffective assistance of
counsel, a defendant must satisfy a two-prong analysis
showing both that counsel's performance fell below an
objective standard of reasonableness and establishing
prejudice due to counsel's alleged deficient performance.
Id. at 687. When considering the reasonableness
prong of Strickland, courts apply a "strong
presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide
range of reasonable professional assistance."
Id. at 689; Gray v. Branker, 529 F.3d 220,
228-29 (4th Cir. 2008). Counsel's performance is judged
"on the facts of the particular case, " and
assessed "from counsel's perspective at the
time." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689, 690.
satisfy the prejudice prong of Strickland, a
defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability
that, but for counsel's unprofessional error, the outcome
of the proceeding would have been different. Id. at
694. "A reasonable probability is a probability
sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome."
Id. Williams' claim of ineffective assistance of
counsel does not satisfy Strickland's stringent
asserts that her trial counsel provided ineffective
assistance because counsel never told her that she could
enter into an open plea, without agreeing to the plea
agreement proposed by the government which would have
required her to cooperate. She claims that she thought she
had only two options, (1) agree to the proposed plea
agreement, which would require her to testify against her
son, or (2) proceed to trial by jury. She further argues that
had she known that she had a third option of pleading guilty
without a plea agreement, she would have done so instead of
going to trial and then would have been eligible for a
three-point reduction to her base offense level for
acceptance of responsibility. A three-point reduction in her
base offense level would have resulted in a lower guidelines
range of 151 to 188 months' imprisonment.
are entitled to effective assistance of counsel throughout
plea negotiations. Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S.
356, 364 (2010). Counsel provides effective assistance by
presenting a defendant with information sufficient for the
defendant to make a "voluntary and intelligent choice
among alternative courses of action." Hill v.
Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 56 (1985) (internal quotation
marks omitted). This information includes the plea options
available to the defendant. See Missouri v. Frye.
132 S.Ct. 1399, 1408 (2012) ("This Court now holds that,
as a general rule, defense counsel has the duty to
communicate formal offers from the prosecution to accept a
plea on terms and conditions that may be favorable to the
accused). If counsel fails to communicate a plea offer, this
may constitute ineffective assistance of counsel.
Id. at 1410; United States v. Braxton. 784
F.3d 240, 241 n.1 (4th Cir. 2015).
court does not find credible Williams' testimony at the
evidentiary hearing that counsel failed to inform her that
she could enter into an open guilty plea. Williams'
version of events leading up to trial is not plausible. She
claims that counsel met with her only two or three times,
total, discussed with her the possibility of pleading guilty
while a probation officer was present, and never prepared for
trial or reviewed the sentencing guidelines with her.
Finally, she claims that counsel never told her about the
option of an open plea. This argument of a complete failure