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United States v. Jackson

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

March 27, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
VERNON JACKSON, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          T. S. Ellis, III United States District Judge

         At issue in this matter is defendant's post-conviction petition, pursuant to the All Writs Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1651(a), for a writ of coram nobis to vacate his convictions for bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery.

         I.

         On May 3, 2006, defendant pled guilty to bribing and conspiring to bribe former United States Congressman William Jennings Jefferson to perform "official acts" for the benefit of defendant's company, iGate, Incorporated ("iGate") in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 and 18 U.S.C. § 201(b)(1)(A). Defendant was sentenced on September 8, 2006 to serve 60 months of incarceration on the conspiracy count and 87 months of incarceration on the bribery count, to run concurrently, and two years of supervised release on each count, also to run concurrently.

         Defendant subsequently provided substantial cooperation in the government's investigation of Jefferson and also testified at trial against Jefferson with respect to seven bribery-related criminal charges.[1] A jury convicted Jefferson on each of these seven bribery-related charges, as well as additional bribery-related, racketeering, and conspiracy charges. Following his conviction, Jefferson was sentenced to serve a total of thirteen years in prison. Jefferson appealed his convictions and sentences to the Fourth Circuit and the Supreme Court. The Fourth Circuit affirmed Jefferson's convictions and sentences, [2] and the Supreme Court denied certiorari. United States v. Jefferson, 674 F.3d 332, 369 (4th Cir. 2012), cert, denied, 568 U.S. 1041 (2012).

         Based on defendant's cooperation in Jefferson's trial, the government filed a motion to reduce defendant's sentence, and defendant was re-sentenced to serve 40 months of incarceration. Defendant completed his sentence, including his two-year term of supervised release, on January 24, 2012.

         Thereafter, in 2016-ten years after defendant pled guilty and nine years after Jefferson's trial-the Supreme Court in McDonnell v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 2355 (2016), "altered the legal landscape with respect to the principal element of bribery-the 'official act.'" United States v. Jefferson, 289 F.Supp.3d 717, 721 (E.D. Va. 2017). In short, McDonnell held that an "official act" is a "decision or action [by a public official] on a 'question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy.'" McDonnell, 136 S.Ct. at 2371. The "question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy" must be "something specific and focused that is 'pending' or 'may by law be brought' before a public official" and must involve "a formal exercise of governmental power that is similar in nature to a lawsuit before a court, a determination before an agency, or a hearing before a committee." Id. at 2372. And a "decision or action" on the "question, matter, cause, suit, proceeding or controversy" may include "using his official position to exert pressure on another official to perform an 'official act,' or to advise another official, knowing or intending that such advice will form the basis for an 'official act' by another official." Id.

         In light of McDonnell, Jefferson filed a habeas corpus petition pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his bribery convictions on the ground that the Supreme Court's newly restricted definition of "official acts" meant that the activities for which he was convicted were not criminal. Specifically, Jefferson argued that he never engaged in or agreed to engage in "official acts," as defined by McDonnell. On October 4, 2017, Jefferson's petition was granted with respect to his bribery-related convictions arising from Jefferson's agreements with defendant and iGate because (i) the jury instructions in Jefferson's trial "did not convey 'meaningful limits' on the meaning of official act and 'lacked important qualifications, rendering them significantly overinclusive'"[3] and (ii) the evidence at trial did not establish "that Jefferson took 'official acts' in relation to the iGate scheme within the meaning of the bribery statute as clarified by the Supreme Court's opinion in McDonnells Id. at 734-35, 740-41.[4]

         Currently at issue is defendant's petition for a writ of cor am nobis to vacate his bribery and conspiracy convictions, which defendant filed approximately two months after Jefferson's habeas petition was granted in part. In essence, defendant argues that the writ should be granted because the Supreme Court's clarification of the meaning of "official act" in McDonnell reveals that defendant did not plead guilty intelligently during his plea proceeding and that there was not a factual basis for his guilty plea. For the reasons that follow, defendant's petition for a writ of coram nobis must be granted.

         II.

         The writ of coram nobis[5] is an ancient common-law remedy that was originally designed "to correct errors of fact" that "affect[ed] the validity and regularity of the judgment." United States v. Morgan, 346 U.S. 502, 507 (1954) (internal quotation marks omitted). In its modern-day form, the writ has a broader application and may "issue to redress a fundamental error" infecting "an earlier judgment of conviction." United States v. Denedo, 556 U.S. 904, 911, 917 (2009).[6] Yet, to ensure "that finality is not at risk in a great number of cases," the Supreme Court has "limit[ed] the availability of the writ to 'extraordinary' cases presenting related circumstances compelling its use 'to achieve justice.'" Id. (quoting Morgan, 346 U.S. at 511); see also Id. at 916 ("[J]udgment finality is not to be lightly cast aside; and courts must be cautious so that the extraordinary remedy of coram nobis issues only in extreme cases."). Indeed, it is well-settled that coram nobis may only be invoked to correct errors so fundamental that they "render the proceedings themselves irregular and invalid" and "result[] in a complete miscarriage of justice." Bereano v. United States, 706 F.3d 568, 577 (4th Cir. 2013) (quoting Thomas v. US. Disciplinary Barracks, 625 F.3d 667, 670 n.3 (10th Cir. 2010) and United States v. Bruno, 903 F.2d 393, 396 (5th Cir. 1990)).

         In particular, the Fourth Circuit has held that a petitioner seeking a writ of coram nobis "must show that (1) a more usual remedy is not available; (2) valid reasons exist for not attacking the conviction earlier; (3) adverse consequences exist from the conviction sufficient to satisfy the case or controversy requirement of Article III; and (4) the error is of the most fundamental character." United States v. Akinsade, 686 F.3d 248, 252 (4th Cir. 2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). The Supreme Court has made clear that "[i]t is presumed the proceedings were correct and the burden rests on the accused to show otherwise." Morgan, 346 U.S. at 512.

         A.

         First, it is clear, and the government does not contest, that defendant cannot seek relief through a more usual remedy instead of through a writ of coram nobis. Defendant cannot seek relief under the typical remedies for a direct or collateral attack of a federal judgment and sentence, such as habeas corpus, because he is no longer in custody and has already served his entire sentence of incarceration and supervised release. See Akinsade, 686 F.3d at 252 (citing 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (1948); 28 U.S.C. § 2241 (1948)). Thus, defendant has satisfied the first element necessary to grant a writ of coram nobis.

         B.

         Second, defendant has provided valid reasons for not challenging his convictions earlier.[7]Under the well-settled understanding of the law, which had remained unaltered since 1914, defendant had no basis for attacking his convictions for bribing and conspiring to bribe Jefferson.[8]Indeed, in 2012, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Jefferson's bribery convictions on the ground that the jury was properly instructed on the meaning of "official acts" pursuant to United States v. Birdsall, 233 U.S. 223 (1914), and that Jefferson's acts fell within the Birdsall and statutory definition of "official act." United States v. Jefferson, 614 F.3d 332, 355 (4th Cir. 2012). Then, in 2016, a decade after defendant pled guilty to bribery and conspiracy to commit bribery, the Supreme Court's decision in McDonnell changed the legal landscape with respect to the "official act" element of bribery. Defendant then filed his coram nobis petition only seventeen months after McDonnell was decided. Thus, the fact that the basis for defendant's challenge to his convictions emerged a reasonably short time before defendant filed his petition is a valid explanation for defendant's decision not to challenge his convictions earlier. See Bereano v. United States, 706 F.3d 568, 576 & n.9 (4th Cir. 2013) (concluding that a coram nobis petitioner had a valid reason for not attacking his convictions earlier because the Supreme Court decision on which the petitioner primarily relied was rendered only ten months before he filed the petition).

         Moreover, it was also reasonable for defendant to wait until after Jefferson's § 2255 petition was resolved, which occurred only two months before defendant filed his petition, because the issues decided in Jefferson's collateral attack-i.e. whether Jefferson performed any "official acts" for defendant under the McDonnell test-are at the heart of defendant's coram nobis petition. Thus, by waiting to file his petition until after the resolution of Jefferson's McDonnell-based claims, defendant promoted judicial economy by ensuring the petition would not be frivolous.

         In addition, to determine whether a coram nobis petition is timely, courts also consider whether the government has suffered prejudice as a result of the petitioner's delay in seeking coram nobis relief. See Blanton v. United States, 94 F.3d 227, 231 (6th Cir. 1996); United States v. Darnell, 716 F.2d 479, 481 (7th Cir. 1983); United States v. Mora-Gomez, 875 F.Supp. 1208, 1216 (E.D. Va. 1995). In this respect, it does not appear that the government has suffered prejudice as a result of defendant's failure to challenge his convictions earlier. Indeed, the government has not identified any evidence the government was unable to produce, and it appears that the government was fully able to oppose defendant's cor am nobis petition. Accordingly, in light of the sound reasons for defendant's delay in filing a cor am nobis petition and the absence of significant prejudice to the government caused by the delay, defendant has satisfied the second Akinsade element required to support his petition.

         C.

         Third, it is also apparent, and undisputed by the government, that defendant continues to face adverse consequences stemming from his convictions that are sufficient to satisfy the case or controversy requirement of Article III. Defendant's convictions deprive him of the right to exercise certain civil rights, including the right to vote or possess a firearm. A district court has also held defendant liable, on the basis of his guilty plea in the instant case, for civil conspiracy and breach of his fiduciary duty to iGate and ordered defendant to pay the plaintiffs in that matter $391, 993.71. Cadle v. Jefferson, No. 3:07-CV-00070-CRS, 2017 WL 3013385, at *6, *15, *17 (W.D. Ky. July 14, 2017). In addition, as a result of defendant's convictions, iGate ceased its operations, closed its headquarters in Louisville, Kentucky and furloughed all of its employees, and iGate is no longer a going concern. Id. at *6. Lastly, defendant represents that despite continuing interest by potential lenders and investors in iGate's technology, defendant has not been able to obtain financing to bring the technology to market because of lenders' and investors' wariness of partnering with a convicted felon. These adverse consequences, stemming from defendant's convictions, are sufficient to create a controversy, as is required by Article III and the third Akinsade element.

         D.

         Fourth, and lastly, defendant has demonstrated that the errors in his plea proceeding were of the most fundamental character. The Fourth Circuit has instructed that an error in the petitioner's prior criminal proceeding is sufficiently serious as to be an error "of the most fundamental character" if the error "would have entitled [the petitioner] to relief by way of a direct appeal" and if coram nobis relief is "required in order to achieve justice." Bereano, 706 F.3d at 577; United States v. Mandel,862 F.2d 1067, 1074-75 (4th Cir. 1988). Analysis thus proceeds in three steps: first, whether any errors infect defendant's prior criminal proceeding; ...


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