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McDaniel v. United States

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

February 12, 2018

DAMIEN LARON MCDANIEL, Petitioner,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA Respondent.

          MEMORANDUM OF OPINION

          L. Scott Coogler United States District Judge

         This is a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct a sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, filed by petitioner Damien Laron McDaniel (“McDaniel”). (Docs. 1 & 2.) The Government opposes the motion. (Doc. 5.) McDaniel has replied in support. (Doc. 8.) For the reasons set forth below, the motion is due to be denied.

         I. Background

         In October 2013, a six-count superseding indictment was issued against McDaniel. Count One charged McDaniel with possession with intent to distribute cocaine hydrochloride, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C); Count Two charged McDaniel for using and carrying a firearm in relation to the drug trafficking offense alleged in Count One, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(i); Counts Three and Six charged McDaniel with being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g); Count Four charged McDaniel with possession with intent to distribute marijuana, in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(D); and Count Five charged McDaniel with possessing a firearm in furtherance of the drug trafficking offense alleged in Count Four, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A).

         On December 6, 2013, this Court set a trial date of January 6, 2014. On December 17, 2013, McDaniel filed a pro se motion requesting new counsel to be appointed. On January 6, 2014, McDaniel's appointed counsel was allowed to withdraw, and McDaniel retained private counsel of his choosing. The jury panel was cancelled, and the trial was re-scheduled for February 7, 2014.

         Before trial, McDaniel's new counsel negotiated a binding plea agreement with the Government, whereby the Government agreed to dismiss Count Five, saving McDaniel an additional 25 years' imprisonment. McDaniel agreed to plead guilty to the remaining counts, and he stipulated to a total sentence of 312 months' imprisonment, pursuant to the binding plea agreement.

         On February 7, 2014, after a hearing in which this Court fully explained to McDaniel the binding aspect of his plea agreement, McDaniel pleaded guilty to Counts One, Two, Three, Four, and Six. As part of the plea agreement, the Government agreed to dismiss Count Five at the sentencing hearing.

         Before sentencing, McDaniel filed a pro se motion to suppress evidence. At the sentencing hearing on May 27, 2014, McDaniel made a pro se oral motion to withdraw his guilty plea. After a full hearing on the reasons why he wanted to withdraw his guilty plea, this Court denied the motion. Abiding by the binding plea agreement, this Court sentenced McDaniel to a total sentence of 312 months' imprisonment and entered judgment on May 29, 2014.

         McDaniel appealed his conviction and sentence, raising the issue of the denial of his motion to withdraw his guilty plea and ineffective assistance of counsel. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence on March 11, 2015, finding that this Court did not abuse its discretion in denying McDaniel's motion to withdraw his guilty plea. The Eleventh Circuit did not entertain the ineffective assistance of counsel claim on appeal. That decision was issued as a mandate on April 9, 2015.

         McDaniel timely filed the instant motion on March 7, 2016, and it is his first such motion.

         II. Discussion

         McDaniel raises three ineffective assistance of counsel claims in this proceeding. To succeed on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, a defendant must prove both that his counsel's performance was deficient and that that deficient performance prejudiced his case. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). More specifically, McDaniel must show that (1) identified acts or omissions of counsel fell below an objective standard of reasonableness and (2) that his counsel's alleged errors or omissions resulted in prejudice to him to such an extent that, without counsel's alleged errors or omissions, there is a reasonable probability that the outcome of his trial would have been different. Yordan v. Dugger, 909 F.2d 474, 477 (11th Cir. 1990).

         In analyzing counsel's performance under the performance prong of Strickland, this Court must presume that the conduct of counsel was reasonable. Id. A “[d]efendant must prove deficient performance by a preponderance of competent evidence, and the standard is ‘reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.'” Gallo-Chamorro v. United States, 233 F.3d 1298, 1303-04 (11th Cir. 2000) (footnotes omitted). Additionally, the Eleventh Circuit has described a defendant's burden with regard to the deficient performance prong of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim as follows:

         Because there is such a wide range of constitutionally acceptable performance, a petitioner seeking to rebut the presumption of adequate performance must bear a heavy burden:

The test has nothing to do with what the best lawyers would have done. Nor is the test even what most good lawyers would have done. We ask only whether some reasonable lawyer at the trial could have acted, in the circumstances, as defense counsel acted at trial. . . . We are not interested in grading lawyers' performances; we are interested in whether the adversarial process at trial, in fact, worked adequately.
Thus, in order to show that counsel's performance was unreasonable, the petitioner must establish that no competent counsel would have taken the action that his counsel did take.

Grayson v. Thompson, 257 F.3d 1194, 1216 (11th Cir. 2001) (internal citations omitted).

         Similarly, the Eleventh Circuit has described a defendant's burden in demonstrating that his counsel's deficient performance prejudiced his case as “high, ” noting that it is not enough to show that any errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding. Robinson v. Moore, 300 F.3d 1320, 1343-44 (11th Cir. 2002).

         Finally, “[i]t is well established that a habeas petitioner must demonstrate both deficient performance and prejudice, and that a failure to demonstrate either prong constitutes a failure to demonstrate ineffective assistance of counsel.” Bottoson v. Moore, 234 F.3d 526, 532 (11th Cir. 2000).

         A. Counsel's Failure to Support McDaniel's Pro Se Motion to Withdraw his Guilty Plea at his Sentencing

         Contrary to McDaniel's claim that counsel should have supported his motion to withdraw his guilty plea, his (retained) counsel actually negotiated a favorable deal for McDaniel by convincing the Government to dismiss Count Five, which carried a mandatory consecutive sentence of 25 years' imprisonment. To the extent McDaniel is really arguing that his guilty plea was not knowing and voluntary, such an argument is not only procedurally barred because it has already been rejected on direct appeal but it is also belied by the record. McDaniel signed his name at the end of the binding plea agreement itself, representing that he had “read and underst[ood] the provisions” of the agreement; he had “discussed the case and [his] constitutional and other rights with [his] lawyer”; and he was “satisfied” with his lawyer's representation. (Crim. Doc. 25 at 15-16.) McDaniel further represented that he had “read, underst[ood], and approve[d] all of the provisions of [the] Agreement, both individually and as a total binding agreement.” (Id. at 16.) Similarly, counsel represented that he discussed the case with McDaniel in detail, that he advised McDaniel of all rights and all possible defenses, and that McDaniel conveyed he “underst[ood] this Agreement” and consented to all of its terms. (Id. at 17.)

         Moreover, this Court conducted a thorough colloquy with McDaniel pursuant to Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and determined that McDaniel's plea was knowing and voluntary. McDaniel acknowledged under penalty of perjury that: he read the guilty plea advice of rights certification form and the plea agreement (Crim. Doc. 48 at 4, 18); his attorney reviewed each document with him before he signed them (id. at 5, 18); and he understood each document (id. at 3-4, 5, 18). McDaniel stated that his retained attorney was “great” and he had no complaints with the representation he received. (Id. at 4.) This Court then explained to McDaniel the elements of the charged offenses, the possible penalties, and the consequences of pleading guilty, and McDaniel acknowledged that he understood. (Id. at 9-13, 14-18.) McDaniel also acknowledged that the factual basis in the plea agreement was substantially correct. (Id. at 19.) He agreed that he had entered into a binding plea agreement with the Government. Finally, McDaniel acknowledged that no one coerced him in any way to plead guilty. (Id. at 20.) He then entered guilty pleas to Counts One, Two, Three, Four, and Six. (Id. at 21.) This Court accepted McDaniel's guilty pleas, ...


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