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Ennis v. United States

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

June 10, 2013



DEBORAH K. CHASANOW, District Judge.

Presently pending and ready for resolution is a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence filed by Petitioner Quinita Jesse Ennis. (ECF No. 114). The relevant issues have been briefed and the court now rules pursuant to Local Rule 105.6, no hearing being deemed necessary. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied.

I. Background

Petitioner was charged by a ten-count indictment with offenses arising from an armed bank robbery. Pursuant to a written agreement with the government, she pleaded guilty, on December 29, 2008, to conspiracy to commit armed bank robbery (18 U.S.C. § 371), armed bank robbery (18 U.S.C. § 2113(a) & (d)), and making a false statement in connection with a firearm purchase (18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(6)). On June 1, 2009, she was sentenced to a total term of imprisonment of 120 months, to be followed by a five-year term of supervised release. Petitioner did not appeal.

On April 23, 2010, the clerk received for filing the pending motion to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. (ECF No. 114). The government was directed to respond, and did so on June 8, 2010. (ECF No. 121).

II. Standard of Review

To be eligible for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, a petitioner must show, by a preponderance of the evidence, that his or her "sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States, or that the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence, or that the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law[.]" 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). A pro se movant, such as Petitioner, is entitled to have her arguments reviewed with appropriate consideration. See Gordon v. Leeke, 574 F.2d 1147, 1151-53 (4th Cir. 1978). But if the § 2255 motion, along with the files and records of the case, "conclusively show[s] that the prisoner is entitled to no relief, " the claims raised in the motion may be summarily denied. See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b).

III. Analysis

Petitioner advances claims of ineffective assistance of counsel based on allegations that her counsel failed to conduct proper investigation of her background, provided incorrect advice regarding application of the sentencing guidelines, failed to object to enhancements under the guidelines, failed to call character witnesses, and failed to devote appropriate time to the case. She further contends that her plea was not knowing, voluntary, and intelligent.

A. Ineffective Assistance of Counsel

Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are governed by the familiar standard adopted by the Supreme Court in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Under Strickland, Petitioner must show both that her attorney's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and that she suffered actual prejudice as a result. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. To demonstrate actual prejudice, Petitioner must show that there is a "reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694.

In scrutinizing counsel's performance, courts must be highly deferential; indeed, there exists a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within a wide range of reasonably professional conduct. Id. at 688-89; Bunch v. Thompson, 949 F.2d 1354, 1363 (4th Cir. 1991). Courts must judge the reasonableness of attorney conduct "as of the time their actions occurred, not the conduct's consequences after the fact." Frye v. Lee, 235 F.3d 897, 906 (4th Cir. 2000). Furthermore, a determination need not be made concerning the attorney's performance if it is clear that no prejudice would have resulted from the alleged deficiency. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697.

A petitioner who pleads guilty has an especially high burden in establishing ineffective assistance of counsel. As the Supreme Court recently explained, "[t]he plea process brings to the criminal justice system a stability and a certainty that must not be undermined by the prospect of collateral challenges in cases... where witnesses and evidence were not presented in the first place." Premo v. Moore, ___ U.S. ___, 131 S.Ct. 733, 745-46 (2011). Thus, a petitioner alleging ineffective assistance in the context of a guilty plea has a "substantial burden... to avoid the plea[.]" Id. at 746.

That burden has not been met here. Petitioner asserts that her trial counsel failed to investigate her family history and psychiatric background, but provides no substantiation for her claim. In fact, the record reflects that counsel apprised the court of relevant facts regarding Petitioner's background in a sentencing memorandum and at the sentencing hearing. It is unclear what additional facts could have impacted Petitioner's sentence, and Petitioner has failed to identify any. Similarly, while Petitioner contends that her counsel gave incorrect advice concerning application of the sentencing guidelines and failed to object to enhancements, she has not provided any specific information regarding her counsel's alleged shortcomings in this regard. Absent any allegation as to what advice was incorrect or why any enhancement was improperly applied, she cannot meet her heavy burden under Strickland. Petitioner also faults her counsel for failing to call character witnesses, but she has not volunteered who those witnesses might have been or what they would have contributed. Moreover, the record reflects that members of Petitioner's family were present at the sentencing proceeding and her mother was permitted to address the court. Insofar as Petitioner contends that her counsel failed to devote sufficient time to the case, her claim is belied by the record. At the plea colloquy, Petitioner was specifically ...

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