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Williams v. United States

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

February 22, 2018



          Hon. Vanessa L. Bryant, United States District Judge

         Mr. Ralston Williams (“Williams” or “Petitioner”) brings this pro se motion to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. He raises claims against trial counsel, sentencing counsel, and this Court, asserting (1) his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to request that the jury determine the drug quantity beyond reasonable doubt and in failing to properly advise him of his right to testify, (2) the Court erred in determining the drug quantity at sentencing by using a preponderance of the evidence standard, and (3) his sentencing counsel was ineffective for failing to object to testimony from Ms. Jessica Burrows's family members. For the foregoing reasons, this motion to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence, [Dkt. 1], is DENIED on all grounds except the claim that defense counsel failed to properly advise Mr. Williams of his right to testify. The Court will hold a hearing on this limited issue to develop the record and will thereafter rule on this ground.


         On September 14, 2011, a grand jury charged Mr. Williams, with a three-count indictment of (1) conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C); (2) possession with intent to distribute heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C); and (3) possession with intent to distribute cocaine base / crack cocaine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), (b)(1)(C). See United States v. Williams (“Williams”), Case No. 11-cr-00172, [Dkt. 13 (Indictment)]. Co-defendants Jason Brodsky (“Brodsky”), Bruce Dais (“Dais”), and Alana Fiorentino (“Fiorentino”) were charged only with the first count. Id. Mr. Williams entered a plea of not guilty on September 29, 2011. See Williams, [Dkt. 29 (Minute Entry)]. Unlike Mr. Williams, his co-defendants each entered into a plea agreement prior to trial. See Williams, [Dkt. 92 (Fiorentino Plea Agreement), Dkt. 138 (Brodsky Plea Agreement), Dkt. 145 (Dais Plea Agreement)].

         Trial commenced on May 18, 2012 and lasted four days. Co-defendants Fiorentino and Brodsky testified on behalf of the Government. See Williams, [Dkt. 220 (Trial Tr. 5/18/12 Vol. I) at 2; Dkt. 222 (Trial Tr. 5/24/12 Vol. II) at 10]. On May 29, 2012, the jury found Mr. Williams guilty on all three counts. See Williams, [Dkt. 174 (Jury Verdict)].

         In between verdict and sentencing, the Court held an evidentiary hearing to determine whether it should consider Ms. Burrows's death in sentencing Mr. Williams. The Court took the matter under advisement, and the parties subsequently briefed this issue in multiple sentencing memoranda. See [Dkt. 226 (Gov. Sentencing Mem. 10/9/12); Dkt. 228 (Def. Sentencing Mem. 10/23/12); Dkt. 233 (Gov. Reply Sentencing Mem. 11/2/12); Dkt. 247 (Def. Supplemental Sentencing Mem. 1/20/13)]. On January 28, 2013, the Court concluded that it would not apply the death resulting enhancement under U.S.S.G. § 2D1.1(a)(2) but that it would “take into consideration [Ms. Burrows's] death, either for purposes of an upward departure or for purposes of identifying offense characteristics or related conduct, in fashioning an appropriate sentence, which is reflective of the defendant's conduct and the impact of the conduct.” [Dkt. 312 (Hr'g Tr.) at 7:21-8:1].

         The Court held the sentencing hearing on May 14, 2013. The Court determined there existed ample evidence supporting the drug quantities listed in the Presentence Report. [Dkt. 315 (Sentencing Tr.) at 14:9-15]. The Court also found there was more than a preponderance of the evidence establishing Mr. Williams's role as a leader or supervisor in the criminal enterprise. See Id. at 14:16-24.

         Kim Burrows, Ms. Burrows's mother, thereafter testified about her daughter's characteristics and the impact of her daughter's death on the family. See Id. at 18:5-23:4. Mr. Williams's friend, daughter, and sister then spoke on his behalf. See Id. at 25:12- 28:19.

         Mr. Williams also testified about the matters for which he took responsibility, his compassion for people addicted to drugs, including the decedent, his efforts to dissuade the decedent from using the drugs he continued to traffic, and that he was “not a big drug dealer.” See Id. at 29:1-33:10. After considering the testimony, the Court sentenced Mr. Williams to 168 months' imprisonment; three years' supervised release; a fine of $100, 000 to be paid if he is deported and illegally reenters; and a $300 special assessment. Id. at 38:11-40:9.

         Mr. Williams timely appealed the jury verdict and his sentence. See Williams, [Dkt. 305 (Notice of Appeal)]. On June 20, 2014, the Second Circuit issued a summary order affirming both his conviction and sentence. [Dkt. 344]. The Second Circuit agreed with the Court's quantity finding, specifically stating that “[t]he trial evidence also supported the district court's estimate . . . as to the quantity of heroin involved. See Id. at 4. Mr. Williams did not file a petition for writ of certiorari and his time to do so expired on September 18, 2014. See 28 U.S.C. § 2101(c) (requiring a writ of certiorari to be filed within 90 days after the entry of judgment). This habeas petition was timely filed on August 31, 2015. See 28 U.S.C. § 2244(d)(1).

         On July 27, 2015, the Court reduced Mr. Williams's sentence from 168 months to 152 months pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2) and in light of the United States Sentencing Guideline amendment to the drug quantity table, which reduced by two levels the base level offense for drug convictions. See Williams, [Dkt. 379]. Mr. Williams appealed this reduction and the Second Circuit issued a summary order on March 9, 2017 that affirmed the Court's decision. [Dkt. 391].

         Legal Standard

         Section 2255 enables a prisoner in federal custody to petition a federal court to vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a). Relief under Section 2255 is generally available “only for a constitutional error, a lack of jurisdiction in the sentencing court, or an error of law or fact that constitutes a fundamental defect which inherently results in complete miscarriage of justice.” Graziano v. United States, 83 F.3d 587, 590 (2d Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Section 2255 provides that a district court should grant a hearing “[u]nless the motion and the files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b).

         Claims for ineffective assistance of counsel are analyzed under the two part test established in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). To prevail, a movant must both allege facts demonstrating that “counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness” and that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Id. at 687-88, 694. As to the first showing, a movant must demonstrate that counsel's performance “amounted to incompetence under ‘prevailing professional norms'” rather than demonstrating that the performance “deviated from best practices or most common custom.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 105 (2011) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690). As to the second showing, a movant must demonstrate “a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694.


         I. Claims Involving the Drug Quantity Determination

         Mr. Williams raises two separate claims related to the quantity of heroin involved in his case. He first asserts trial counsel was ineffective in failing to request a special verdict that the jury determine the conspiracy involved a drug quantity greater than one kilogram of heroin. [Dkt. 3 (2255 Mot. Mem.) at 3]. The basis for this claim is that the quantity involved was 1 kilogram or more of heroin, which led to a sentence above the mandatory maximum penalty under § 841(b)(1)(C) for which he was charged. Second, he claims the Court erred by considering the drug quantity at sentencing because the drug quantity constitutes facts not included in the Indictment. This argument is based on the Court's sentence to a term above 10 years' imprisonment, which he contends is the mandatory minimum sentence under § 841(b)(1)(A). Although stylized as different claims, both are centered on the same question: was drug quantity an element of the offense requiring a jury determination beyond a reasonable doubt? The Court will address these two claims together as they can be interchangeably applied to trial counsel and the Court.

         “The touchstone for determining whether a fact must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt is whether the fact constitutes an ‘element' or ‘ingredient' of the charged offense.” Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. 99, __, 133 S.Ct. 2151, 2158 (2013). Any fact that “increases the punishment above what is otherwise legally prescribed” is considered an element of the offense. Id. (discussing the holding in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 483 (2000)). This includes both facts that increase the mandatory minimum sentence, Alleyne, 133 S.Ct. at 2158, as well as facts that exceed the mandatory maximum sentence, United States v. Gonzalez, 420 F.3d 111, 125 (2d Cir. 2005). In other words, a jury must decide beyond a reasonable doubt any fact that increases the mandatory minimum or exceeds the mandatory maximum sentence.

         A. A Court's Drug Quantity Finding Does Not Increase the Mandatory Minimum ...

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