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Byrd v. United States

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

August 22, 2017

CAMERON RASHUN BYRD, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          KARON OWEN BOWDRE CHIEF UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         On July 31, 2017, the court held an evidentiary hearing to expand the record on Petitioner Cameron Byrd's claim that his trial counsel, Frederic Washington, provided him ineffective assistance during plea negotiations with the government. Because the record reflects that Mr. Byrd received ineffective counsel that prejudiced him, the court will grant Mr. Byrd's petition.

         I. FINDINGS OF FACT

         The court has previously laid out the procedural history of Mr. Byrd's crimes and prosecution. See (Doc. 27 at 1-9). Two disputed questions remained. First, what advice did Mr. Washington give Mr. Byrd about the government's proposed plea agreement? Second, if that advice was insufficient, would Mr. Byrd have accepted the government's plea agreement but-for Mr. Washington's ineffective assistance?[1]

         Before setting out the particular factual findings, the court notes that this case, like many collateral challenges involving advice given during criminal cases, ultimately comes down to a credibility contest between the attorney and the petitioner. This case turns on whether a preponderance of the evidence supports Mr. Washington's or Mr. Byrd's narrative of events. Other witnesses may bolster or undermine one of the accounts. But the critical question is what Mr. Washington told Mr. Byrd about the proposed plea agreement and whether Mr. Byrd would have accepted it if he had been given adequate counsel. The best evidence to answer those questions comes from Mr. Byrd's and Mr. Washington's own testimony.

         The court has reservations about the credibility of Mr. Washington's testimony, which was unaided by any file on the case. Mr. Washington testified at the hearing that he does not currently possess a file for Mr. Byrd's case, though one existed at some point. Mr. Washington's testimony at the hearing was based entirely on his memory of events over five years ago. From merely the undisputed facts in the record, serious questions arise about his representation of Mr. Byrd during this matter. While these facts do not by themselves support habeas relief, they bear on Mr. Washington's credibility.

         Mr. Washington undertook the representation of Mr. Byrd in violation of his terms of employment with the Legal Aid Society. Legal Aid's employment manual prohibits the private practice of law. At the hearing, however, Mr. Washington testified that separate private practice is “not encouraged.” Mr. Washington's representation of Mr. Byrd was impermissible, and yet Mr. Washington downplayed that fact at the hearing, seeming to insist that, merely because no one (except the employment manual) had explicitly told him he could not engage in the private practice of law, he was permitted-or at least only innocently mistaken-in doing so. Such testimony calls into question Mr. Washington's professional judgment, if not his credibility.[2]

         Casting further doubt on Mr. Washington's judgment is his testimony that he told Mr. Byrd that he had a “50-50 shot at trial” because that was what he told all his clients about their chances at trial. Such routine practice ignored that in this case the government's strong case against Mr. Byrd included video evidence and testimony of two cooperating witnesses. By Mr. Washington's own testimony, he failed to offer Mr. Byrd an individualized assessment of his case.

         Mr. Washington also failed to follow through on commitments made to the court. At the pretrial conference held a week before trial, Mr. Washington told the court that he was hoping to meet Mr. Byrd that afternoon to communicate a plea offer made by the government. The court asked Mr. Washington to let it know as soon as possible if Mr. Byrd intended to accept the offer.Mr. Washington said he would do so and that he generally did not like for a plea to be accepted the day of trial. See (Cr. Doc 87 at 16-17). However, at the hearing, Mr. Washington testified that he did not meet with Mr. Byrd at all during the week between the conference and the trial.Mr. Washington only met with Mr. Byrd the morning of the trial. Mr. Washington offered no explanation for the delay in carrying out his commitment to promptly discuss the government's offer with his client.

         Because of these troubling facts, the court accords little weight to Mr. Washington's testimony. Therefore, upon full consideration of the evidence, the court makes the following findings of material fact:

1. Before this matter, Mr. Byrd had no previous experience with the criminal justice system in general or the Federal Criminal Justice System in particular.
2. A CM-ECF search indicates Mr. Washington had never represented an individual with multiples charges under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.
3. On the day of his arraignment, Mr. Byrd and Mr. Washington met with the FBI Agent Jonathan Sumner and Assistant United States Attorney Terrence O'Rourke in a Kastigar meeting where Mr. Byrd indicated a willingness to cooperate.
4. Mr. Washington met with Mr. Byrd on two occasions between arraignment and trial while he was detained in the Cullman County Jail. These meetings occurred on November 25, 2011, and December 24, 2011. Each of the meetings lasted approximately 15-20 minutes.
5. Mr. Washington and Mr. Byrd discussed a plea agreement offered by the government at the December meeting.
6. Mr. Washington told Mr. Byrd that he faced a sentence of up to ten years if he proceeded to trial and was convicted.[3]
7. Mr. Washington told Mr. Byrd that he had a “50-50 shot” of ...

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