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United States v. Stephens

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

February 22, 2018

WILLIAM HENRY STEPHENS, JR. also known as “Cuz” and “B”



         Now pending before the Court is Defendant's Letter Form Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea (ECF No. 44). The Court held a hearing on the motion on February 20, 2018 at 3:30 p.m. in Huntington. At the hearing, the Court heard argument both from Defendant and from the Government relating to Defendant's motion. Upon close of argument, the Court ruled that Defendant's motion was DENIED. The Court's reasons for denial were set forth during the hearing and are more fully detailed herein.

         I. Background

         Defendant was charged in a four-count indictment on August 1, 2017. ECF No. 18. After retaining the counsel of A. Courtenay Craig, Defendant signed a plea agreement with the Government on October 17, 2017 in which he pled guilty to Count One of the indictment and the United States agreed to dismiss the remaining counts. On October 24, 2017, the Court held a Rule 11 hearing in which it accepted Defendant's guilty plea but deferred accepting the plea agreement until after review of a presentence report.

         On November 14, 2017, Defendant wrote a letter to the Court in which he moved to withdraw his guilty plea. ECF No. 44. In his letter form motion, Defendant noted that he had fired Mr. Craig and filed a complaint against Mr. Craig with the West Virginia Bar Association. Id. In the complaint, included as an exhibit to Defendant's letter form motion, Defendant accused Mr. Craig of misleading him and “forcing [Defendant] to enter into a non-favorable plea agreement that [he] [had] no wish to enter into.” ECF No. 44-1. Defendant also accused Mr. Craig of failing to provide Defendant with requested discovery materials, failing to file appropriate pretrial motions, and misleading Defendant as to his constitutional rights. Id. Defendant further asserted that Mr. Craig interfered with Defendant's right to obtain new counsel. Id. Defendant finally claimed that Mr. Craig misled Defendant in advising him that the Government would prove its case against him using racial stereotyping and falsified evidence. Id.

         On November 14, 2017, Mr. Craig was removed from the case pursuant to a sealed Court order. ECF No. 43. Richard Weston was appointed to represent Defendant on January 9, 2018. ECF No. 59. On February 5, 2018, Mr. Weston filed a Memorandum in Support of Defendant's letter form motion. ECF No. 61-1.

         In the Memorandum, Defendant reasserted that Mr. Craig “pressured him into pleading guilty by refusing to participate in a jury trial, failing to provide him discovery he requested to review before pleading guilty and failing to file proper pretrial motions.” ECF No. 61-1. In support of these assertions, Defendant filed recordings of two phone calls Defendant made to an unidentified female during the pre-plea period. ECF No. 64. In the first call, Defendant told the female that he had no choice but to go to trial, that he hadn't done anything, and that the plea offers he was hearing were inconsistent and unpalatable. Id. In the second call, Defendant told the woman that Mr. Craig had advised him against going to trial because he was a black man from out of town and in a relationship with a white woman, and that a jury would convict him on the basis of racism. Id. Defendant noted during the call that he was contemplating firing Mr. Craig because Mr. Craig was not working with Defendant, but against him. Id. Defendant further told the female that Mr. Craig advised Defendant that if he did not take the plea deal he was going to be sentenced to life in prison. Id. Pursuant to the offered phone call evidence, his letter form motion, and his new attorney's memorandum in support, Defendant asked the Court to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea.

         The Government responded to Defendant's Memorandum in Support on February 15, 2018. ECF No. 67. The Government noted that Defendant signed a guilty plea, initialing each page, in which he acknowledged that he understood and agreed to the terms contained in the agreement and was satisfied with the representation of his attorney. Id. The agreement that Defendant signed also included a stipulation of facts referencing Defendant's constructive possession of, among other items, 140 grams of heroin, 44 grams of cocaine, and a rifle with ammunition. Id. As such, the Government opposed Defendant's motion and asked the Court to deny Defendant's request to withdraw the guilty plea.

         The Court held a Motions Hearing on February 20, 2018 at which it heard argument from both parties as to Defendant's Motion to Withdraw. After consideration of the oral argument and written submissions, the Court DENIED Defendant's motion. The Court's reasons for doing so were explained during the hearing and are provided in greater detail below.

         II. Legal Standard

         “A defendant does not have an absolute right to withdraw a guilty plea, even before sentencing.” United States v. Moore, 931 F.2d 245, 248 (4th Cir. 1991). “A defendant may withdraw a plea of guilty . . . after the court accepts the plea, but before it imposes sentence if the defendant can show a fair and just reason for requesting the withdrawal.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(d)(2)(B). When seeking to withdraw a guilty plea, the defendant bears the burden of showing sufficient “fair and just reason” to withdraw. Moore, 931 F.2d at 248.

         “[A] fair and just reason for withdrawing a plea is one that essentially challenges . . . the fairness of [a] Rule 11 proceeding.” United States v. Lambey, 974 F.2d 1389, 1394 (4th Cir. 1992). If a Rule 11 proceeding is conducted properly, a defendant is left with a “very limited basis” upon which to withdraw his plea. United States v. Bowman, 348 F.3d 408, 414 (4th Cir. 2003). Rule 11 hearings raise a “strong presumption” that a plea is final and binding. Lambey, 974 F.2d at 1394.

         Under the gloss of this strong presumption of finality, courts within the Fourth Circuit are directed to look to the following factors in determining whether a defendant has sufficiently shown fair and just reason to withdraw:

(1) whether the defendant has offered credible evidence that his plea was not knowing or voluntary, (2) whether the defendant has credibly asserted his legal innocence, (3) whether there has been a delay between the entering of the plea and the filing of the motion, (4) whether defendant has had close assistance of competent counsel, (5) whether withdrawal will cause prejudice to the government, and (6) whether it will inconvenience the court and waste judicial resources.

Moore, 931 F.2d at 248. The first, second, and fourth factors “speak most straightforwardly to the question whether the movant has a fair and just reason” while the third, fifth, and sixth factors “establish how heavily the presumption should weigh in any given case.” United States v. Sparks, 67 F.3d 1145, 1154 (1995). Whether a defendant has shown fair and just reason for withdrawal is a determination ultimately left to the discretion of the district court. Moore, 931 F.2d at 248.

         III. Discussion

         a. Rule 11 Hearing

         In this case, the Court conducted a Rule 11 hearing on October 24, 2017. ECF No. 36. At the Motion Hearing held on February 20, 2018, Defendant conceded that he did not challenge the adequacy or propriety of the earlier Rule 11 hearing. He argued, however, that the Court should nevertheless grant his motion and allow him to withdraw his guilty plea because, at the time of the hearing, Defendant did not think he had any other option but to plead guilty. Accordingly, Defendant asserted that his testimony at the Rule 11 hearing was offered only to complete the plea process and was not offered in the spirit of full disclosure to the Court.

         This argument did not persuade the Court to give any less weight to Defendant's Rule 11 testimony. “Statements of fact by a defendant in Rule 11 proceedings may not ordinarily be repudiated . . .” Lambey, 974 F.2d at 1395. For example, in one instance the Fourth Circuit declined to allow a defendant to withdraw his guilty plea even when that defendant argued that he perjured himself and blatantly lied to the court during his Rule 11 hearing. Bowman, 348 F.2d at 415. The Fourth Circuit has explained the rule in saying that “the criminal justice system must be able to rely on the . . . dialogue between the court and defendant [at a Rule 11 hearing].” Lambey, 974 F.2d at 1395. Accordingly, this Court found that it had conducted a thorough Rule 11 hearing at which Defendant offered sworn testimony, and that the sworn testimony offered during the hearing defeated the assertions that Defendant later made in his motion to withdraw.

         b. M ...

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