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United States v. Holness

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 27, 2017

RYAN HOLNESS Civil No. WMN-14-3072


          William M. Nickerson Senior United States District Judge

         Before the Court is a Motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence filed by Defendant Ryan Holness. ECF No. 132. Because the pleadings, files, and records conclusively show that Petitioner is not entitled to relief, the Court concludes that an evidentiary hearing is not necessary, United States v. Diaz, 547 Fed.Appx. 303, 304 (4th Cir. 2013) (citing United States v. Witherspoon, 231 F.3d 923, 925-27 (4th Cir. 2000)), and the motion will be denied.


         After a ten day jury trial, Defendant was convicted of three counts of the four count Second Superseding Indictment; Count One - Interstate Domestic Violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2261; Count Two - Obstruction of Justice in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(c)(2); and Count Three - Attempted Witness Intimidation in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)(1).[1] Prior to sentencing, the Court granted a new trial as to Count Two, after which, the government advised it would dismiss that count. On June 9, 2011, the Court sentenced Defendant to life imprisonment as to Count One and to a term of 20 years as to Count Three, to be served concurrent to the sentence for Count One. Defendant's conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal on February 11, 2013. United States v. Holness, 706 F.3d 579 (4th Cir. 2013). The Supreme Court denied certiorari on October 7, 2013, and Defendant filed his timely motion to vacate on September 29, 2014.

         In its opinion affirming Defendant's conviction and sentence, the Fourth Circuit set out in significant detail the overwhelming evidence presented to the jury and on which the jury based its finding of guilt. 706 F.3d at 579-88. That level of detail will not be repeated here. Briefly stated, however, the facts relevant to the instant motion are as follows. Early in the morning of June 5, 2009, on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Defendant murdered his wife, Serika Dunkley, by stabbing her and leaving her in a field. Defendant attempted to make the murder appear to be the result of a carjacking by giving himself a superficial stab wound and by taping himself up with duct tape. Defendant had an accomplice, Dellando Recardo Campbell, who had traveled from New York City with Defendant and Ms. Dunkley and who then proceeded to drive Defendant's car to Washington, D.C. to abandon it there so that it would later be found by the police.[2] After allowing sufficient time for Campbell to drive the car to D.C., Defendant knocked on the door of a nearby house and reported that he had been carjacked, knocked unconscious, and his wife had been stabbed and left in a nearby field. The residents of the house called 911.

         A Kent County Deputy Sheriff and Maryland State Troopers arrived at the scene and interviewed Defendant. Defendant was transported to a local hospital for treatment and, later that morning, was taken to a Maryland State Police Barracks where he was interviewed by two members of the Maryland State Police homicide unit, Sergeant Stephen Hall and Sergeant Michael Smith. While they were interviewing Defendant, another officer arrived at the scene with a bloodhound which was used to trace Defendant's path. The path traced by the bloodhound was inconsistent with Defendant's version of events. While Defendant claimed that, after regaining consciousness, he travelled north to the house from which the 911 call was made, the path traced by the bloodhound indicated that Defendant first went south from the crime scene to the front and back doors of a modular home and then to a bridge over the Chester River.

         Sergeants Hall and Smith returned with Defendant to the crime scene and Defendant essentially repeated his earlier story. Evidence developed in the investigation, however, further undermined Defendant's version of events. The resident of the modular home south of the crime scene reported that someone knocked on her front and back doors at the time Defendant would have been unconscious and a witness reported seeing a man matching Defendant's description near the bridge. Furthermore, Defendant's wounds and the physical evidence found on Defendant's person (and evidence not found which should have been found) were inconsistent with his version of events.[3]Defendant was placed under arrest.

         On July 2, 2009, a Maryland state grand jury indicted Defendant, charging him with first-degree and second-degree murder. For a period of time, Defendant was held in a county detention center with a cellmate, Stephen McGrath. On August 18, 2009, McGrath sent a letter to the Kent County prosecutor stating that Defendant had told him “some interesting stuff which led [McGrath] to believe [Defendant] actually killed his wife.” After relating some of that information, McGrath ended the letter with the post script, “[i]n short he killed his wife cause she found out he was cheating . . . .” Sergeant Hall met with McGrath on August 31, 2009, and McGrath clarified that Defendant had never made a specific admission of murdering his wife but the post script was just McGrath's interpretation of the information given to him by Defendant. Sergeant Hall instructed McGrath that he could reinitiate contact with Defendant should Defendant volunteer additional information, but cautioned him not to ask Defendant any direct questions.

         Shortly thereafter, Defendant asked McGrath to help him write a letter which would purport to be from the carjacker expressing remorse. The letter would be delivered to the Washington Post for the purpose of giving the impression that the carjacker was still at large and was to be handwritten by McGrath so as not to implicate Defendant. McGrath relayed the plan to Sgt. Hall and Sgt. Hall provided McGrath with a recording device that McGrath kept hidden in his pillow. On October 1, 2009, McGrath provided Sgt. Hall with one page of a draft of a letter prepared by Defendant and a recording of the contents of the remainder of that letter. Sgt. Hall used that information to obtain a search warrant of Defendant's cell and the search recovered an initial draft of the letter in McGrath's handwriting.

         McGrath was released from custody on October 10, 2009.[4]Shortly thereafter, Defendant was placed in solitary confinement after he was found in possession of a shank. On the wall of his new cell, Defendant scrawled, “Stephen Scott McGrath, rat snitch” along with McGrath's home address and telephone number. Defendant's scrawling of this on the wall of his cell was the basis of the attempted witness intimidation charge.

         On October 13, 2009, Sergeant Hall met with representatives of the United States Attorney's office to explore the possibility of transferring the case for prosecution. The discussion proved fruitful and, on November 24, 2009, a federal grand jury returned an indictment against Defendant for Interstate Domestic Violence. Six days later, the state charges against Defendant were dropped. On March 1, 2011, the operative Second Superseding Indictment was filed. At the trial, McGrath gave testimony about what Defendant had related to him about the events of June 5, 2009, and about the drafting of the sham letter. McGrath also testified that Defendant told him that he had thrown the murder weapons into the Chester River.

         In his original Motion to Vacate filed on September 29, 2014, Defendant raised three challenges to his conviction and sentence. First, Defendant argues that his trial counsel was ineffective for failing to challenge the “federal nexus” requirement of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)(1). Second, Defendant suggests that his due process rights were violated when he was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment without parole based on a factual finding made by the Court and not by the jury, in violation of the rule announced in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000) and Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013). Third, Defendant argues that the admission of McGrath's testimony about conversations and events that occurred after McGrath met with Sgt. Hall violated his Sixth Amendment rights, referencing Massiah v. United States, 377 U.S. 201 (1964). With his § 2255 motion, Defendant also filed a “Motion for Leave to File Amended Motion Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, ” ECF No. 133, in which he indicated that, after the completion of his review of the files and records, he would seek to amend his motion to add a fourth ground which he presented simply as: “because of a fraudulent marriage that is relevant to the issue of Federal nexus under 18 U.S.C. § 2261(a)(1).”

         On January 5, 2015, Defendant filed an additional pleading stating that “Pertinent and Significant new case law” had come to his attention that supports his second ground for relief, citing Burrage v. United States, 134 S.Ct. 881 (2014). ECF No. 137. On January 29, 2015, Defendant submitted what he captioned as an “Amendment to Placeholder Motion.” ECF No. 138. In that pleading, Defendant asked that the Court “take judicial notice that he is unable to obtain needed documents relating to a ‘fraudulent marriage' (ground number four)” and asked that this ground “be dismissed without prejudice so that if, and when, he receives the necessary document he can re-instate the claim.” Id. at 2. Defendant also asked to conduct discovery, proffering that “he has reason to believe that the jurisdictional nexus, that is, a valid marriage in this case was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. at 3-4. He also suggests, without any explanation, that “the Government may have failed to disclose exculpatory and favorable evidence to Petitioner, relating to Petitioner's unindicted co-defendant Delando R. Campbell.” Id. at 4. Finally in that pleading, Defendant argues that his counsel was ineffective for failing to argue that Sgt. Hall was not properly qualified as an expert to testify regarding cell phone tracking. Id. at 4-5.

         After the Government filed its opposition to Defendant's motion, Defendant filed a brief reply memorandum on November 24, 2015. ECF No. 145. On February 10, 2016, Defendant filed a “Motion Requesting Leave of the Court to Amend 28 U.S.C. § 2255 Pursuant to Rules of Civil Procedure, 15.” ECF No. 146. This pleading purports to inform the Court of more “Pertinent and Significant new case law, ” citing Hurst v. Florida, 136 S.Ct. 616 (Jan. 12, 2016) and Montgomery v. Louisiana, 136 S.Ct. 718 (Jan. 25, 2016). Defendant also suggested that Campbell's plea agreement gives further support to his Apprendi claim. Finally, on September 30, 2016, Defendant filed a “Notice of Subsequent Authority, ” this time directing the Court's attention to the Fourth Circuit's decision in In re Hubbard, 825 F.3d 225 (4thCir. June 8, 2016). ECF No. 147.


         A. Alleged Ineffective Assistance: Failure to Challenge Federal Nexus Requirement of 18 U.S.C. § 1512(b)(1)

         Ineffective assistance of counsel claims under the Sixth Amendment are examined under the two-prong test set forth in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). To succeed under Strickland, a petitioner must show both that: (1) his attorney's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) he suffered actual prejudice. Id. at 687. The first Strickland prong requires the petitioner to “‘show that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness' measured by ‘prevailing professional norms.'” Lewis v. Wheeler, 609 F.3d 291, 301 (4th Cir. 2010) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688). There is a ‚Äústrong presumption that counsel's conduct ...

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