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Eccleston v. United States

United States District Court, D. Maryland

March 23, 2018

XAVIER D. ECCLESTON Petitioner
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA Respondent

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PETER J. MESSITTE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Xavier D. Eccleston has filed a Motion to Vacate or Correct Illegal Sentence pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 2255. ECF No. 522. For the reasons set forth below, the Court DENIES the Motion.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         This case stems from a drug conspiracy involving the sale of cocaine and crack cocaine in the Kentlands area of Prince George's County, Maryland, between June 2010 and September 2011. ECF No. 522. Phillip Whitehurst, who led the conspiracy (the “Kentland Drug Organization” or “Whitehurst crew”), oversaw a crew of several men who had varying roles in the organization. Id. A jury found him guilty of a drug conspiracy involving the sale of cocaine and crack. Id.

         Eccleston, a friend of Whitehurst, was charged in a Fourth Superseding Indictment with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 (Count One), use of communications device to facilitate narcotics trafficking in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(b) (Counts Eight and Ten), and possession with intent to distribute cocaine and crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) (Counts Nine and Eleven). ECF No. 210. A jury found him guilty on all counts. ECF No. 255.

         Eccleston's trial began on September 11, 2012, before Judge Alexander Williams, Jr., and lasted six days. Various members of the Whitehurst crew testified for the Government. Several co-operators testified that Eccleston was a customer-not a member of the conspiracy. ECF No. 522. However, at trial, one cooperating witness testified that Eccleston had assaulted him and threatened his family unless he agreed to lie to the jury and testify that Eccleston was only a user of cocaine and not a distributor. ECF No. 276. A second co-operator refused to testify because he was too concerned for his safety. Id.

         Eccleston was represented at the trial level by Criminal Justice Act (“CJA”) attorney Anthony Martin, Esquire. About two weeks after his initial appearance, Martin advised Eccleston of what he believed was his possible sentencing range, specifically, that his criminal history appeared to be Category VI so that his custody range under the Sentencing Guidelines based on an Offense Level of 32 would be between 210 and 262 months. ECF No. 522-1. At least two more times before trial, Martin advised Eccleston, in writing, of his opinion that he fell “squarely within the definition of career offender” and that his Guidelines range would be “262 to 327 months.”[1] ECF No. 522-2; ECF No. 522-3. Both Eccleston and the Government agree that the characterization of Eccleston as a career offender was incorrect.

         In an e-mail to AUSA Lenzner prior to trial, Martin asked the prosecutor how many months of incarceration the Government would seek in a plea agreement. ECF No. 522-7. Martin advised the Government that he “doubt[ed] that [Eccleston] would come in as a co-operator.” Id. The Government responded that “if [Eccleston] doesn't cooperate then he obviously can't get below the mandatory minimum.” Id. In that same email, Martin stated that Eccleston would “spend the greater part, if not all of his life in prison.” Id. In his response, AUSA Lenzner stated his belief that Eccleston's sentence would not be “too outrageous.” Id.

         At trial, one of the co-conspirators testified that the conspiracy trafficked in approximately one kilo of powder per month for the 16 months of the charged conspiracy and approximately three ounces of crack per day. ECF No. 297. The jury also found that Eccleston's personal distribution was limited to between 500 grams to 5 kilograms of powder cocaine and less than 28 grams of crack cocaine. Id.

         At sentencing, the Government asked the court to hold Eccleston responsible for the entire amount of drugs that the conspiracy trafficked, i.e. 16 kilograms of cocaine and more than 8.4 kilograms of crack cocaine, because that amount was “reasonably foreseeable to the defendant.” ECF No. 291 at 8-9. While district judges were not and are not bound by the Government's recommendations regarding drug quantities attributable to a particular defendant, they have had an “obligation” at sentencing “to choose a method for interpreting the evidence that ensures that only drug quantities proven by a preponderance are attributed to a defendant.” United States v. Bell, 667 F.3d 431, 441 (4th Cir. 2011). Accordingly, while Judge Williams found that Eccleston personally dealt only 5 kilograms or more of cocaine and 280 grams or more of cocaine base, ECF No. 300, ECF No. 328, he determined that Eccleston's criminal activity and relevant conduct involved approximately 16 kilograms of powder cocaine and 28 grams of crack cocaine. This quantity converted to a total of 33, 196.4 kilograms of marijuana.[2]ECF No. 297; 18 U.S.C. § 3553.

         Under the Sentencing Guidelines in effect in 2013, this amount set a base level offense of 34.[3] Judge Williams added two levels to Eccleston's Offense Level for Obstruction of Justice for threatening the witnesses and determined Eccleston's criminal history to be a Category III. ECF No. 297. These calculations resulted in a recommended range of 235-293 months of imprisonment. Even so, on January 30, 2013, Judge Williams sentenced Eccleston to 210 months on Count One, and 96 months on Counts Eights and Ten, and 210 months on Counts Nine and Eleven, to be served concurrently. ECF No. 293; ECF No. 301.[4]

         On January 31, 2013, Eccleston, through Martin, filed a timely appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, which was denied on July 31, 2015. ECF No. 295; ECF No. 458. Eccleston then filed a petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, which was denied on March 21, 2016. Eccleston v. United States, 136 S.Ct. 1476 (2016).

         On March 16, 2017, he filed the present Motion to Vacate pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Eccleston alleges that Martin rendered constitutionally ineffective assistance when he mistakenly told him he was a career offender, which he believed would have resulted in a minimum of “about 20-year” imprisonment. ECF No. 522 at 11. As a result of Martin's faulty advice, Eccleston argues, he declined to seek a plea deal and instead proceeded to trial. Id. The result, he ...


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