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United States v. Williams

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

August 15, 2019

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
REBECCA LYNN WILLIAMS, Defendant.

          Zachary T. Lee, Assistant United States Attorney, Abingdon, Virginia, for United States; Charles L. Bledsoe, Big Stone Gap, Virginia, for Defendant.

          OPINION

          James P. Jones United States District Judge.,

         The defendant has filed a motion seeking relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. She has raised multiple claims, including an ineffective assistance of counsel claim alleging that her counsel failed to note an appeal. The United States has filed a motion to dismiss, to which the movant has responded. I appointed counsel and held an evidentiary hearing limited to the appeal issue, which I took under advisement. After reviewing the record, I will grant the motion to dismiss.

         I.

         Williams was charged in Count One of the Indictment with conspiring to manufacture, distribute, and possess with the intent to distribute methamphetamine and oxycodone in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841, and using a communication facility in committing a felony controlled substance offense in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b). After a seven-day trial, a jury found her guilty of Count One. Williams was sentenced by this court on February 28, 2018, to a term of 108 months imprisonment.

         In her § 2255 motion, Williams contends that her trial counsel was ineffective because he failed to note an appeal and did not adequately advise her about her right to appeal. In addition, Williams argues that her counsel rendered constitutionally deficient performance when he failed to provide evidence or argue for overturning her conviction, failed to attack the credibility of a government witness, failed to suppress hearsay evidence, and failed to present witnesses on her behalf. Williams also contends that the government failed to produce impeachment evidence and violated several evidentiary rules during her trial.[1]

         II.

         To state a viable claim for relief under § 2255, a defendant must prove: (1) that her 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). The petitioner bears the burden of proving grounds for a § 2255 motion by a preponderance of the evidence. Miller v. United States, 261 F.2d 546, 547 (4th Cir. 1958). Where the records conclusively show that the petitioner is entitled to no relief, summary dismissal is appropriate. Raines v. United States, 423 F.2d 526, 529 (4th Cir. 1970). In addition, “vague 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) (citation omitted).

         Criminal defendants have a Sixth Amendment right to effective legal assistance. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). Ineffective assistance claims, however, 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.” Id. at 686. To that end, a defendant must satisfy a two-prong analysis showing 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 687. 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.

         III.

         I make the following findings of fact based on the evidence presented at the hearing regarding the appeal issue.

         At the conclusion of Williams' sentencing hearing, I expressly directed her counsel, on the record and in front of Williams, “to consult with your client in regard to an appeal, and if she wishes you to appeal, . . . you must file a notice of appeal on her behalf.” Sent. Hr'g 13, ECF No. 1211. Immediately after I so instructed, Williams and her counsel left the courtroom and went into the lobby of the courthouse, where they talked. They had discussed the possibility of appealing on several previous occasions - before trial, during trial, and when preparing for the sentencing hearing. In their conversation after sentencing, Williams asked her attorney if she could appeal her sentence. Her counsel responded that an appeal was unlikely to be successful because she had been convicted by a jury, and he did not see any grounds for appeal. Though he does not recall his exact words to Williams, he essentially told her that it would do no good to appeal. Williams did not indicate that she wished to appeal anyway, nor did she expressly instruct her counsel to note an appeal.

         Williams was not taken into custody at the conclusion of her sentencing hearing, but instead was allowed to self-report to prison and remained free for some time after she was sentenced. During that time before she began serving her sentence, she did not follow up with her attorney to inquire further about whether she should appeal. Had Williams told her attorney to file an appeal, he would have done so, in accordance with his usual practice and my instructions to him.

         When a defendant “neither instructs counsel to file an appeal nor asks that an appeal not be taken, ” I must first determine “whether counsel in fact consulted with the defendant about an appeal.” Roe v. Flores-Ortega, 528 U.S. 470, 478 (2000). Consulting in this context requires “advising the defendant about the advantages and disadvantages of taking an appeal, and making a reasonable effort to discover the defendant's wishes.” Id. If counsel consulted with his client about filing an appeal, his performance is unreasonable only if he failed to follow the client's clear instructions. If, however, he did not consult with his client, I must determine whether that failure to consult amounts to deficient performance. The defendant also must establish prejudice under Strickland, meaning she must show “that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's deficient failure to consult with [her] about an appeal, [she] would have timely appealed.” Id. at 484. “[W]hen counsel's constitutionally deficient performance deprives a defendant of ...


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