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Holton v. United States

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

May 21, 2013

ANTONIO HOLTON, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent. Criminal Action No. RDB-08-553

MEMORANDUM OPINION

RICHARD D. BENNETT, District Judge.

The pro se Petitioner Antonio Holton has filed a Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (ECF No. 130). Petitioner challenges his sentence on the grounds that he received ineffective assistance from his trial counsel, which resulted in violations of his rights under the Sixth Amendment. In his motion, Petitioner also requests that this Court appoint counsel to represent him with respect to these proceedings.[1] The parties' submissions have been reviewed and no hearing is necessary. See Local Rule 105.6 (D. Md. 2011). For the reasons that follow, Petitioner Antonio Holton's Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (ECF No. 130) is DENIED.

BACKGROUND

On August 19, 2010, following a three-day trial, a jury found Petitioner Antonio Holton ("Petitioner" or "Holton") guilty of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). Verdict, ECF No. 97. This Court sentenced Petitioner to a two-hundred and eighty-eight-month (288) prison term (or twenty-four (24) years) with a five-year period of supervised release. Judgment, ECF No. 107.

The facts of the case are taken from the Government's Response to Petitioner's Motion to Vacate. Gov.'s Resp., ECF No. 134. On April 9, 2008, Baltimore Police Officers Angela Choi and Jared Fried were on duty in their patrol car. Id. at 2. Around 10:40 a.m., the officers heard gunshots while in the vicinity of the 2900 block of Presbury Road in Baltimore City. Id. Upon seeing a suspect, later identified as Petitioner, running down the block, Officer Fried got out of the car and gave chase on foot as Petitioner ran down an alley. Id. Officer Choi remained in the car and continued driving in an effort to cut off the suspect. Id. During the pursuit, Petitioner turned back and pointed his gun toward Officer Fried and fired a single shot. Id. at 3. In response, Officer Fried fired several shots, one of which injured Petitioner who then dropped to the ground. Id. A.45 caliber handgun was recovered a few feet away from Petitioner. Id. at 2-3. The firearm "had jammed up after firing, and a spent shell casing was found trapped inside the weapon's chamber." Id. at 3. The Petitioner was taken into custody and later charged in a one-count indictment with being a felon in possession of a firearm. Id. at 1; Indictment, ECF No. 1.

The record at trial reflects that spent.45 shell casings were recovered from the scene of a nearby, earlier shooting, at 1750 Poplar Grove. Id. at 3. These casings were revealed to have come from the.45 firearm recovered near Petitioner. Id. at 4. Although the DNA found on the weapon was found to belong to someone other than Petitioner, a DNA expert testified that this did not mean that Petitioner did not handle the gun. Id. Specifically, this expert testified that a person touching an object did not necessarily leave traceable DNA on that object, as skin and other cell shedding rates vary from individual to individual. Id. Moreover, a gunshot residue expert testified that gunshot residue had been recovered from samples taken from both of Petitioner's hands. Id. At the close of both the government's and the defense's cases, Petitioner indicated that he did not want to testify and that he was satisfied with his attorney's performance. Id. at 5. He also represented to the Court that his attorney had done everything he asked him to do, including calling every eyewitness defendant wanted to call. Id.

Following his conviction, Petitioner was sentenced to a prison term of twenty-four years and five years of supervised release. Petitioner appealed his conviction and sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which in turn affirmed both his conviction and sentence on March 16, 2012. See United States v. Antonio Holton, 469 F.Appx. 265 (4th Cir. 2012). On August 9, 2012, Petitioner timely filed the instant Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (ECF No. 130). The government responded to Defendant's motion on October 19, 2012 in accordance with this Court's Order allowing sixty days for the government to file its response (ECF No. 131) and this Court's Marginal Order granting the government's request for an extension of time (ECF No. 133).[2]

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Documents filed pro se are "liberally construed" and are "held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007) (citation omitted). In order to establish a claim for ineffective assistance of counsel, Petitioner must prove both elements of the test set forth by the Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washinton, 466 U.S. 668, 671 (1984). First, Petitioner must show that his counsel's performance was so deficient as to fall below and "objective standard of reasonableness." Id. at 688. In assessing whether counsel's performance was unconstitutionally deficient, courts adopt a "strong presumption" that counsel's actions fall within the "wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id. at 689. Second, Petitioner must show that his counsel's performance was so prejudicial as to "deprive the defendant of a fair trial." Id. at 687. In order to establish this level of prejudice, peititoner must demonstate that there is a "reaonable probability that, but for counsel's [alleged] unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694. Satisfying either of the two parts of the test alone is not sufficient; rather, the petitioner must meet both prongs of the Strickland test in order to be entitled to relief. See id. at 687.

DISCUSSION

In his Motion to Vacate, Petitioner Antonio Holton ("Petitioner" or "Holton") asserts claims of ineffective assistance of counsel in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights. Specifically, Petitioner asserts four grounds in which he essentially claims that his trial counsel failed (1) to secure an acquittal despite the lack of sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction (Ground 1); (2) to introduce alleged impeachment evidence concerning one of the arresting officers (Ground 3); and (3) to properly prepare for the sentencing proceedings and make sufficient arguments which would have prevented his adjudication as an Armed Career Criminal ("ACC") (Grounds 2 & 4).

Pursuant to the test laid out by the Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 694 (1984), an ineffective assistance of counsel claim is only successful when a petitioner can sufficiently demonstrate two factors: (1) whether the attorney's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and (2) whether the petitioner suffered actual prejudice. As to the first prong, there is a "strong presumption" that counsel's actions fell within the "wide range of reasonable professional assistance." Id. at 689. As to the second prong, actual prejudice is shown if the counsel's performance was so prejudicial as to "deprive the defendant of a fair trial." Id. at 687. It requires a showing that, "but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceedings would have been different." Id. at 694. Documents filed pro se are "liberally construed" and are "held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). However, "[u]nsupported, conclusory allegations do not entitle a habeas petitioner to an evidentiary hearing." Nickerson v. Lee, 971 F.2d 1125, 1136 (4th Cir. 1992), abrogated on other grounds recognized by Yeatts v. Angelone, 166 F.3d 255 (4th Cir. 1999).

I. SUFFICIENCY OF THE EVIDENCE CLAIM

In his first claim of inefficient assistance of counsel, Petitioner alleges that he was convicted despite the lack of sufficient evidence to sustain a conviction. Specifically, Petitioner contends that the evidence presented by the government at trial was exculpatory and that it was his trial counsel's "lack of experience and unprofessional performance" that resulted in his conviction. Mot. to Vacate at 5, ECF No. 130. Petitioner makes much of the fact that Officer Fried was the only witness to testify seeing him with a gun in his hands. Petitioner also points to the fact that his DNA was not found on the gun in question. Finally, he claims that there was no evidence to ...


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