United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Charlottesville Division
Glen E. Conrad Senior United States District Judge.
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.
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”).
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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 ...