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United States v. Weakley

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

December 11, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
JEFFREY BRUCE WEAKLEY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Hon. Glen E. Conrad Senior United States District Judge.

         Jeffrey Bruce Weakley, a federal inmate proceeding pro se, has moved to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The government has filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that Weakley has not raised any issues entitling him to relief. The time within which Weakley had to respond has now expired, making this matter ripe for consideration. Upon review of the record, the court concludes that the government's motion to dismiss must be granted.

         I.

         On December 17, 2014, a grand jury returned a superseding indictment, charging Weakley with: (1) knowingly and intentionally distributing a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of heroin and fentanyl, the use of which resulted in the death of M.K., in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C) (“Count One”); and (2) knowingly and intentionally distributing a mixture or substance containing heroin, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C) (“Count Two”).

         Weakley was appointed counsel. On January 13, 2015, Weakley and the government entered into a written plea agreement pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. Weakley agreed to plead guilty to a lesser included offense of Count One: distribution of heroin and fentanyl (involving M.K.), and both parties agreed to a sentence of between 120 and 168 months' incarceration. Plea Agree. at 1, 3, ECF No. 37. Because of his plea, the maximum statutory term of imprisonment that Weakley faced was reduced from life in prison to twenty years. Id. at 1-2.

         A guilty plea hearing was held on January 13, 2015. Weakley affirmed that he had received a copy of the indictment, reviewed it with counsel, and considered the options and alternatives of pleading guilty to the lesser included offense of Count One. Plea Hr'g Tr. at 4, ECF No. 47. Weakley stated that he accepted the terms of the plea agreement, that he had not been coerced into pleading guilty, and that he wanted to plead guilty because he was, in fact, guilty of the crime. Id. at 16-17, 20. Weakley also affirmed that he understood that, as part of the plea agreement, he was giving up his right to appeal and to collaterally attack his conviction and sentence, except for claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Id. at 17-18. Weakley affirmed that he was “satisfied with all of the components of [counsel's] services in [his] case.” Id. at 43. The government reviewed the relevant facts-which Weakley did not dispute-that Weakley provided heroin laced with fentanyl to a third party in exchange for work provided, and that the third party sold it to M.K., who used the heroin, overdosed, and died. Id. at 36-38. The court concluded that Weakley's plea was knowing and voluntary, but took it under advisement pending completion of the Presentence Investigation Report (“PSR”).

         Following the guilty plea hearing, the Probation Department issued a PSR for Weakley. The PSR recommended a guideline range of 15 to 21 months' incarceration because Weakley pleaded guilty only to the distribution charge, the lesser included offense of Count One. PSR ¶ 64, ECF No. 55. Appointed defense counsel filed a sentencing memorandum on Weakley's behalf. Defense counsel noted that Weakley had a drug addiction problem, but was not a dealer. Sent. Memo. at 5, ECF No. 39. Defense counsel noted that Weakley traded heroin for labor from a friend on occasion, and that the friend supplied the heroin to M.K. Id. Finally, defense counsel noted that Weakley was unaware that the heroin contained fentanyl, making the substance more potent, and that this combination caused M.K.'s death. Id. Counsel requested that Weakley receive a 120-month sentence, the lowest sentence available within the Rule 11(c)(1)(C) guideline range. Id. at 7 On May 8, 2015, a motions hearing was held before the court. Weakley's appointed counsel noted that Weakley was in the process of obtaining different counsel and the case was continued. Mot. Hr'g Tr. at 4, ECF No. 75. Subsequently, Weakley retained counsel. Order at 1, ECF No. 53. With the advice of retained counsel, Weakley decided to proceed with his plea agreement, and did not attempt to withdraw his guilty plea.

         The court held a sentencing hearing on August 25, 2015. No objections to the PSR were made and the court adopted it. Sent. Hr'g Tr. at 5, ECF No. 76. The government recommended a 144-month sentence. Id. at 6. Retained defense counsel requested a 120-month sentence. Id. at 12. The court approved the plea agreement and sentenced Weakley to 129 months' incarceration. Id. at 17.

         On September 11, 2015, Weakley appealed. However, on February 24, 2016, he moved to voluntarily dismiss his appeal under Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure Rule 42(b), which the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit granted. Order at 1, ECF No. 79. On May 23, 2017, Weakley filed this § 2255 motion, asserting that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because counsel failed to investigate his case and provided inadequate advice regarding the government's case against him.[1]

         II.

         To 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 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). Weakley 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).

         Weakley asserts an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to effective legal assistance. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). In order to establish a viable ineffective assistance claim, a defendant must satisfy a two-prong analysis: he must show both that counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that he was prejudiced by counsel's alleged deficient performance. Id. 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; United States v. Roane, 378 F.3d 382, 404 (4th Cir. 2004).

         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. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. “A reasonable probability is a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Id. A defendant who has pleaded guilty must demonstrate that, but for counsel's alleged error, there is a reasonable probability that he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial. Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985). Weakley's claims of ineffective assistance of counsel do not satisfy the stringent requirements of Strickland.

         Weakley argues that counsel failed to investigate his case and failed to review the autopsy report of M.K. This argument is unavailing. He had the benefit of separate counsel, both appointed and retained, who reviewed the case and advised him to plead guilty. Moreover, Weakley does not explain what evidence he expects a more involved investigation would have uncovered. His general allegation that counsel failed to investigate is not sufficient to afford relief. “[V]ague and conclusory allegations contained in a § 2255 petition may be disposed of without further investigation by the District Court.” United States v. Dyess, 730 F.3d 354, 359 (4th Cir. 2013) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted); Nickerson v. Lee, 971 F.2d 1125, 1136 (4th Cir. 1992) (noting that conclusory allegations of ...


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