United States District Court, D. Connecticut
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION DENYING MOTION TO VACATE, SET
ASIDE, OR CORRECT SENTENCE UNDER 28 U.S.C. § 2255 [DKT.
Vanessa L. Bryant, United States District Judge
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.
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
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)].
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].
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
Claims Involving the Drug Quantity Determination
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.
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 Court's Drug Quantity Finding Does Not Increase the
Mandatory Minimum ...