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United States v. Jones

United States District Court, D. Maryland

January 4, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
NATHANIEL LEE JONES, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          THEODORE D. CHUANG, JUDGE

         On July 18, 2016, Defendant Nathaniel Lee Jones filed a Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea seeking to withdraw the guilty plea that he entered on September 18, 2015. The Court has reviewed the Motion and held a hearing on December 2, 2016. At the request of Jones, following the hearing the Court also reviewed the recording of the May 7, 2015 attorney inquiry hearing. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is denied.

         BACKGROUND

         On October 8, 2014, Jones was charged in a three-count indictment with two counts of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), and one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1). The Court appointed attorney Erek L. Barron, a member of the Court's Criminal Justice Act ("CJA") Panel, to represent Jones. On November 20, 2014, Jones retained attorney John McKenna to replace Barron as defense counsel.

         On March 2, 2015, the Government provided Jones with a proposed plea agreement which contemplated Jones pleading guilty to a Superseding Information. On April 14, 2015, Jones was charged in a two-count Superseding Information with (1) in Count One, conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine and 280 grams or more of cocaine base, in violation 21 U.S.C. § 846, which carries a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence; and (2) in Count Two, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g)(1), which potentially could carry a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence if Jones has enough predicate offenses to qualify for the Armed Career Criminal ("ACC") enhancement under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). At the parties' request, the Court scheduled a guilty plea hearing pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 for April 22, 2015. When McKenna proved to be unavailable to appear on that date, the Court continued the hearing. Jones then requested new counsel. After an attorney inquiry hearing on May 7, 2015, the Court (Day, M.J.) granted Jones's request and appointed a new attorney, Michael Lawlor. When notified that Jones was prepared to plead guilty pursuant to the same plea agreement, the Court scheduled another guilty plea hearing for June 15, 2015. Before the hearing, however, Lawlor notified the Court that Jones was no longer prepared to plead guilty and that he should no longer represent Jones because of a conflict of interest, but that he did not want Jones to lose the benefit of the plea agreement. Although the Government expressed the intent to withdraw the plea agreement, it ultimately decided to keep the offer open for consideration upon the appointment of new counsel.

         After a hearing on June 29, 2015, the Court allowed Lawlor to withdraw and appointed attorney Teresa Whalen as Jones's fourth attorney on this case. On August 10, 2015, Jones signed the plea agreement, which differed from the original plea agreement only in that certain changes were made to the Statement of Facts at Jones's request, and Whalen's name was substituted as defense counsel.

         On August 26, 2015, the Court held a Rule 11 hearing. During the hearing, however, Jones expressed concern that prior to the hearing, he had not seen the final, complete plea agreement. Whalen explained that the plea agreement shown to Jones that day was the same agreement that was first provided to Jones in March 2015 except that her name had been substituted in place of predecessor counsel. She also noted that Jones had signed this plea agreement on August 10, 2015, but Jones asserted that he did not have all of the pages together when he signed the signature page. Based on Jones's expressed concern that he had not read the final version, and his assertion that he was not, as of that time, fully satisfied with his legal representation, the Court suspended the proceeding to provide Jones with additional time to read the plea agreement, discuss it with counsel, and consider whether to plead guilty.

         On or about September 9, 2015, the Court received a letter from Jones raising concerns about Whalen's representation. The Court forwarded the letter to Whalen. On September 18, 2015, the Court held an arraignment on the Superseding Information and a Rule 11 hearing. The Court asked whether the issues referenced in Jones's letter to the Court regarding counsel had been resolved. Both Whalen and Jones stated that they had been. Jones then pleaded guilty to both counts. He did so after an extensive colloquy in which the Court verified that Jones understood his right to be charged by indictment and had waived that right, that he understood the charges against him, that he understood and waived his right to a trial by jury and the other constitutional rights associated with such a trial, and that he understood the terms of the plea agreement. Jones confirmed that he was fully satisfied with his attorney's advice, representation, and counsel in the case. He also verified that the plea agreement constituted the full and complete agreement with the Government, that he had not been otherwise promised anything to plead guilty, and that he had not been threatened in any way to plead guilty. Jones stated that there was no part of the proceeding which he did not understand. When asked whether he agreed with the Government's recitation of the facts of the case, Jones disagreed with one statement, that he had placed cocaine in a car trunk on the morning of the day he sold cocaine to a cooperating source, but agreed that he had done so prior to that day. He otherwise agreed with the entire statement of facts.

         Sentencing was scheduled for December 15, 2015. On November 3, 2015, Jones retained a new attorney, William Martin, to represent him at sentencing. Sentencing was then postponed to January 25, 2016. Martin requested several continuances. At a hearing on April 11, 2016, Martin informed the Court that Jones had asked that he file a motion to withdraw the guilty plea. Although the Court set a briefing schedule, requiring the motion to be filed by April 18, 2016, no such motion was filed by that deadline. Martin then sought to withdraw as counsel because he and Jones disagreed on whether to file such a motion. After a hearing on June 8, 2016, the Court granted the motion to withdraw as counsel. Jones then retained Justin Eisele as counsel, and the Court set a schedule for briefing on the motion to withdraw the guilty plea. The Motion was filed on July 18, 2016. A hearing on the Motion was scheduled for September 1, 2016. After continuances requested by the defense, the hearing was held on December 2, 2016.

         At the hearing, the defense presented the testimony of Jones and his sister, Gloriatine Jones. Both witnesses testified that they were dissatisfied with the responsiveness and effectiveness of the attorneys prior to Martin. Jones testified that he was never shown the Government's discovery materials by any attorney until he retained Martin. He further testified that although Whalen reviewed the entire plea agreement with him before he entered his guilty plea, he felt pressured to plead guilty because the Government put deadlines on his acceptance of the plea agreement and he did not want to go trial. He also stated that in pleading guilty, he relied on a statement by Whalen that the only way he could get a sentence below the 10-year mandatory minimum on Count One would be if he pleaded guilty first, after which she could work to get a lower sentence from the Government and seek to get it down to the range of 7 to 9 years.

         The Government offered no witnesses, but submitted affidavits from Barron and McKenna, each of whom stated that he had reviewed the discovery materials with Jones. McKenna also attested to the fact that he had reviewed the plea agreement with Jones.

         DISCUSSION

         In his Motion, Jones seeks to withdraw his guilty plea based on the ground that prior to pleading guilty, his attorneys had not reviewed with him the discovery materials provided by the Government. At the hearing on the Motion to Withdraw ("the Motion Hearing"), Jones asserted an additional basis, that Whalen told him that if he pleaded guilty, she would negotiate with the Government and seek to eliminate the mandatory minimum 10-year sentence, such that his sentencing range would be 7 to 9 years. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies the Motion.

         I. Legal Standard

         Prior to sentencing, a defendant may withdraw a previously entered plea of guilty if there is "a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal." Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(d)(2)(B); United States v. Ubakanma, 215 F.3d 421, 424 (4th Cir. 2000). The defendant has the burden to show that such a fair and just reason exists. United States v. Moore, 931 F.2d 245, 248 (4th Cir. 1991). This is a heavy burden to carry because "[i]f an appropriately conducted Rule 11 proceeding is to serve a meaningful function, on which the criminal justice system can rely, it must be recognized to raise a strong presumption that the plea is final and binding." United States v. Lambey, 974 F.2d 1389, 1394 (4th Cir. 1992) (en banc).

         The factors the Court should consider on whether to permit withdrawal of a guilty plea are:

1. Whether the defendant has offered credible evidence that his plea was not ...

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