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Williams v. United States

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Savannah Division

April 6, 2017



         Guilty-plea convicted of one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1594(c), Desalashia Williams seeks 28 U.S.C. § 2255 relief. Doc. 347;[1] see also docs. 7 (indictment); 50 (superseding indictment); 77 (plea agreement); 112 (judgment ordering 156 months' imprisonment). The Government opposes.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Williams was indicted for conspiring to and engaging in sex trafficking of minors, and multiple counts of sex trafficking of a minor by force, fraud or coercion, transportation with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity, and coercion and enticement of a minor to engage in sexual activity. Docs. 7 & 50. The penalty certifications informed her that she faced any term of imprisonment up to and including life for the conspiracy charge. Docs. 8 & 51.

         Through counsel, Williams entered into a plea agreement with the Government. Docs. 64 & 77. The agreement set forth a factual basis, an outline of the maximum possible sentence (life) she could receive, an outline of rights that would be waived by pleading guilty, and a statement that she was satisfied with counsel's representation. Doc. 77. Movant certified that she had "read and carefully reviewed this agreement with my attorney. I understand each provision of this agreement, and I voluntarily agree to it. I hereby stipulate that the factual basis set out therein is true and accurate in every respect." Id. at 9.

         In pleading guilty, Williams admitted that she knowingly and intentionally conspired to engage in sex trafficking. Docs. 77 & 123. She also waived her right to directly appeal or collaterally attack her conviction and sentence, excepting circumstances not relevant here. Doc. 123 at 8-9. The Court found movant's plea to be intelligently, knowingly, and voluntarily made, Williams affirmed it was so, and the Court accepted her guilty plea. Id. at 20-21, 27.

         At sentencing, the Court reviewed counsel's 25-page objections to the Presentence Investigation Report's (PSR's) factual description, point reductions and enhancement, then heard testimony regarding Williams' relationship with her co-defendant and ex-boyfriend Jeremy Grant. Doc. 127; see PSR, Addendum; Docs. 83, 84, 85 & 110. The Court overruled all but two of Williams' objections to the PSR, and adopted the PSR's factual statements, conclusions, and guidelines applications. Docs. Ill; 127 at 105-118. The Court found a total offense level of 40 and criminal history category of I, resulting in an advisory guideline range of 292 to 365 months' imprisonment. Id. at 118. But it also granted Williams a downward variance given her lack of criminal history, family and community support system, and her co-defendant's dominating role in the enterprise. Id. at 118-155. So, it sentenced her to 156 months in prison. Doc. 112. She appealed but later voluntarily dismissed the appeal, making her conviction final. Docs. 128 & 133.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Williams presents three grounds for relief: (1) her plea was not knowing and voluntary because counsel failed to fully explain "the charges, the possible sentencing guideline frame, possible reductions and enhancements, and the pros and cons of proceeding to trial" and incorrectly advised movant that she would not be sentenced to more than five years; (2) counsel failed to interview a possible witness; and (3) counsel failed to file mitigating factors in support of a reduction of sentence. Doc. 134.

         A. Knowing and Voluntary Plea

         Despite her clear testimony to the contrary, Williams contends that her guilty plea was not voluntarily, knowingly, or intelligently given. Doc. 134. "A guilty plea, if induced by promises or threats which deprive it of the character of a voluntary act, is void. A conviction based upon such a plea is open to collateral attack." Machibroda v. United States, 368 U.S. 487, 493 (1962). At the same time, plea bargaining retains its benefits of certainty and efficiency "only if dispositions by guilty plea are accorded a great measure of finality." Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 71 (1977) ("To allow indiscriminate hearings in federal postconviction proceedings . . . for federal prisoners under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 . . . would eliminate the chief virtues of the plea system --speed, economy, and finality."). While § 2255 exists "to safeguard a person's freedom from detention in violation of constitutional guarantees, " "[m]ore often than not a prisoner has everything to gain and nothing to lose from filing a collateral attack upon his guilty plea." Id. at 71-72.

         As a result, "the representations of the defendant, his lawyer, and the prosecutor at [a plea] hearing, as well as any findings made by the judge accepting the plea, constitute a formidable barrier in any subsequent collateral proceedings." Blackledge, 431 U.S. at 73-74, 80 n. 19 (if the record reflects the procedures of plea negotiation and includes a verbatim transcript of the plea colloquy, a petitioner challenging his plea will be entitled to an evidentiary hearing "only in the most extraordinary circumstances"). "The subsequent presentation of conclusory allegations unsupported by specifics is subject to summary dismissal, as are contentions that in the face of the record are wholly incredible." Id. at 74.

         Williams contends that her guilty plea was made unknowingly and involuntarily because (1) her attorney did not fully explain to her what a guilty plea meant, and (2) her attorney induced her to sign the plea deal by promising her sentence would be capped at five years. Doc. 134 at 4 & 6. Her sworn testimony at the Change of Plea and Sentencing Hearings, however, directly contradicts these contentions.[2]Williams swore that she had spoken with her lawyer about the indictment, her guilty plea, and the plea agreement, and that she understood the charges against her. Doc. 123 at 9-13. She also testified that she understood she could receive a prison sentence for her part in the conspiracy for any amount of time, up to and including life imprisonment. Id. at 13. And she swore she understood that the role she played in the conspiracy would be included in the calculation of her sentence. Id. at 18; see also Id. at 20 (admitting that the reason she was pleading guilty was because she was, in fact, guilty). Finally, she testified that no one had predicted or guaranteed any sentence to her, nor had anyone done anything "wrong or unfair" to force her to plead guilty. Id. at 15. Based on her unambiguous and clear testimony, the Court found Williams was "in full possession of all of her faculties, " had "participated knowingly and intelligently" with the "services of a competent defense lawyer who has gone through all the requisite pleadings with her, " and that "her offer to plead guilty to [one count of conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking] is knowing" and "voluntary." Id. at 21.

         Faced with her sworn affirmation of understanding in an otherwise thorough and wide-ranging plea colloquy, and unsworn, self-serving testimony to the opposite effect at a time when she has every incentive to embellish, see Winthrop-Redin v. United States, 767 F.3d 1210, 1216 (11th Cir. 2014), the Court finds Williams' plea testimony dispositive. Movant cannot now escape her sworn testimony at the Rule 11 hearing, that her plea was both knowing and voluntary, only to now claim that it was neither. See Blackledge, 431 U.S. at 74 ("Solemn declarations in open court carry a strong presumption of veracity."); accord United States v. Gonzalez-Mercado, 808 F.2d 796, 800 n. 8 (11th Cir. 1987) ("While Rule 11 is not insurmountable, there is a strong presumption that the statements made during the colloquy are true."); United States v. Stitzer, 785 F.2d 1506, 1514 n. 4 (11th Cir. 1986) ("[I]f the Rule 11 plea-taking procedure is careful and detailed, the defendant will not later be heard to contend that he swore falsely."). Hence, her unintelligent plea claim fails on the merits.[3]

         B. Ineffective ...

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