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United States v. Morris

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

April 26, 2017



          Michael F. Urbanski United States District Judge.

         Defendant Qwanesha Tyann Morris was found guilty following a six-day trial of conspiracy to distribute 28 grams or more of crack cocaine and was sentenced to 60 months in prison. She filed a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct her sentence, under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, raising multiple claims of ineffective assistance of counsel and prosecutorial misconduct. The government responded and Morris replied, making this matter ripe for adjudication. After review of the record and briefs, the court concludes that Morris has not raised any meritorious claims. Accordingly, the court will grant the United States' motion to dismiss and dismiss Morris' § 2255 motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         On September 26, 2013, a federal grand jury sitting in Roanoke, Virginia charged Morris and five codefendants in a one-count superseding indictment with conspiracy to distribute and possess with the intent to distribute 280 grams or more of a mixture or substance containing crack cocaine, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(A) and 846. Morris was appointed counsel. On January 21, 2014, Morris and four codefendants proceeded to trial.[1] The government argued that Morris was involved in a crack cocaine trafficking conspiracy by helping to collect money for the conspiracy when the two leaders of the conspiracy were incarcerated and renting cars that various members of the conspiracy used to facilitate drug sales. Tr. Trans, at 8-19, ECF No. 403. Prior to trial, the government and defense counsel stipulated that the rental car company records were business records and that the drug labs were sufficient to show the nature of the various seized substances. Stlp. at 1, ECF No. 248.

         The jury was tasked with determining whether Morris was guilty of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine; and, if so, whether the conspiracy involved 280 grams or more of crack cocaine or, in the alternative, 28 grams or more of crack cocaine. The jury found Morris guilty of the lesser included offense of conspiracy to distribute 28 grams or more of crack cocaine. Verdict, ECF No. 274.

         The Probation Department prepared a presentence investigation report ('TSR") in anticipation of sentencing. The PSR recommended a total offense level of 26, corresponding to a drug amount of at least 28 grams but less than 112 grams of crack cocaine, and a criminal history category of II, resulting in an imprisonment range of 70 to 87 months. PSR ¶ 90, ECF No. 344. Defense counsel did not make any objections to the PSR. The government, however, objected, arguing that Morris should be held accountable for a much larger quantity of drugs as a member of the conspiracy. IcL at 23. A probation officer declined to amend the PSR, concluding that Morris' role was limited in the conspiracy and there was no indication that she had engaged in any direct distribution. Id.

         On June 23, 2014, the court held a sentencing hearing. The government again objected to the PSR's drug quantity calculation for Morris, arguing that she was responsible for at least 140 grams of crack cocaine; defense counsel responded that Morris was peripherally involved in the conspiracy and the PSR should be adopted. Sent. Hr'g. Tran. at 42-44, ECF No. 406. The court sustained the government's objection, in part, and concluded that Morris' base offense level should be 28, resulting in an increased advisory guideline range of87 to 108 months. Id. at 47. The court then sentenced Morris to 60 months' imprisonment. Judgment at 2, ECF No. 331. The court imposed a downward variance, concluding that Morris did not actively participant in the conspiracy in significant ways and was sporadically involved compared to her codefendants. Sent. Hr'g Tr. at 109, ECF No. 406.

         Morris appealed, claiming that the trial court erred by sua sponte submitting to the jury a special verdict form that permitted the jury to make an alternative drug weight finding, admitting audio recordings of jailhouse conversations and ordering forfeiture. United States v. Jones. 622 F.App'x 204 (4th Cir. Aug. 24, 2015). The Fourth Circuit affirmed on all claims. Id. Morris timely filed this § 2255 motion. She asserts that counsel provided ineffective assistance at trial by failing to move to dismiss the indictment, agreeing to stipulations, failing to raise defenses, and unsuccessfully moving for acquittal. In addition, she claimed that counsel provided ineffective assistance at sentencing because counsel failed to argue that Morris qualified for a safety valve reduction in sentencing, and that she qualified for a minor role reduction. Morris also argues that the prosecution engaged in misconduct by presenting false testimony at the grand jury proceeding and trial. In addition, in her response to the government's motion to dismiss, Morris raises three additional claims of ineffective assistance: (1) trail counsel failed to object to the drug weight attributed to her at sentencing; (2) trial and appellate counsel failed to argue that the district court should have given the jury an additional lesser-included-offense instruction; and (3) appellate counsel failed to argue that the district court erred by denying her motion for acquittal. Reply at 1, ECF No. 507.


         To state a viable claim for relief under § 2255, a petitioner must prove: (1) that the sentence was "imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States;" (2) that "the court was without jurisdiction to impose such 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). Morris bears the burden of proving grounds for a collateral attack by a preponderance of the evidence. Miller v. United States. 261 F.2d 546, 547 (4th Cir. 1958).

         A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

         Criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to "reasonably effective" legal assistance. Strickland v. Washington. 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). In order to establish that counsel's assistance was not reasonably effective, a defendant must satisfy a two-prong analysis: the defendant must show both that counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that the defendant was prejudiced by counsel's alleged deficient performance. Id. at 669. 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; see also 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.

         To 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 ...

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