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United States v. Jones

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 26, 2019

EDDIE JONES, Defendant.


          George A. O'Toole, Jr. United States District Judge.

         After a jury trial, the petitioner, Eddie Jones, was convicted of four counts related to the transportation of girls and women across state lines to engage in prostitution. Jones now moves to vacate his conviction and sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, arguing principally that trial counsel's advice regarding his sentencing exposure was constitutionally ineffective.

         I. Background

         On May 16, 2007, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Eddie Jones and five others with conspiring to transport individuals in interstate commerce with intent that they engage in prostitution, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371 (Count 1). Jones was also charged with two counts of transporting a minor across state lines to engage in prostitution, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2423(a) (Counts 9 and 14), and one count of inducing travel to engage in prostitution, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2422(a) (Count 13). Four of his co-defendants pled guilty to various charges in the indictment, but Jones and co-defendant Darryl Tavares proceeded to trial. On November 6, 2009, the jury found Jones guilty of Counts 1, 9, and 14, and acquitted him of Count 13.[1]

         At sentencing, Judge Nancy Gertner found that Jones qualified as a career offender under the United States Sentencing Guidelines with a guideline range of 262 to 327 months imprisonment. She imposed a within-guidelines sentence of 300 months imprisonment. His convictions and sentence were subsequently affirmed by the First Circuit. United States v. Tavares, 705 F.3d 4, 12 (1st Cir. 2013).

         Jones timely moved pro se to vacate his conviction and sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 claiming ineffective assistance of counsel. This Court appointed counsel, who supplemented Jones's filings. An evidentiary hearing was held during which the parties presented evidence directed primarily at trial counsel's sentencing-related advice. Following the hearing, the parties filed further briefing.

         II. Claim of Ineffective Assistance of Counsel During Plea Negotiations

         Under the Sixth Amendment, criminal defendants are “entitled to the effective assistance of competent counsel” during the plea bargaining process. Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 162 (2012) (quoting McMann v. Richardson, 397 U.S. 759, 771 (1970)). Claims that counsel provided ineffective assistance during plea negotiations are reviewed using the two-part test of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), under which a defendant must show that counsel's performance fell below an “objective standard of reasonableness” and that “but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Lafler, 566 U.S. at 153. In the circumstances here, where the petitioner claims that allegedly ineffective advice led him to reject a plea offer and instead proceed to trial, he must show that but for the ineffective advice of counsel, there is a

reasonable probability that the plea offer would have been presented to the court (i.e., that the defendant would have accepted the plea and the prosecution would not have withdrawn it in light of intervening circumstances), that the court would have accepted its terms, and that the conviction or sentence, or both, under the offer's terms would have been less severe than under the judgment and sentence that in fact were imposed.

Id. at 164.

         Jones claims that the performance of his trial counsel, Elliot Weinstein, fell below an objective standard of reasonableness during plea negotiations because Weinstein significantly underestimated his sentencing exposure. Jones claims that Weinstein's inaccurate projection of the likely sentencing range led him to reject an offer to plead guilty to certain counts in exchange for a recommended term of incarceration of 10-12 years and to insist instead on going to trial because the sentence under the offered plea would not have been significantly different from the predicted range after trial. In other words, on the inaccurate advice, the sentence was not likely to be significantly different whether he pled or took his chances at trial.

         There is no dispute that Weinstein failed to appreciate the defendant's likely status as a career offender under the Sentencing Guidelines and consequently did not accurately advise the defendant about his likely guidelines range. Shortly before trial, Weinstein sent a letter to Jones advising him about his sentencing exposure. He told Jones that the relevant statute provided for a sentence between a mandatory minimum of 5 and a maximum of 30 years imprisonment. He also advised Jones about his calculation of the applicable sentencing guidelines, stating “[m]y rough guideline calculation has you at offense level 28, criminal history VI; that is, after trial roughly 140-175 months. With acceptance of responsibility (that is only if you plead guilty), offense level goes down to level 26 (maybe 25), 120-150 months. I am not certain about these calculations but they are pretty close.” (Mot. to Suppl., Ex. A (dkt. no. 378-1).) However, Weinstein overlooked the effect of the defendant's two prior felony convictions for resisting arrest, which qualified him as a career offender.[2] See U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual § 4B1.1 (2010). As a career offender, his guideline range, as actually calculated after trial, was 262-327 months, a little more than double what Weinstein had advised Jones. (Sentencing Tr. 16, Nov. 22, 2010 (dkt. no. 303).)

         For present purposes it can be assumed that Weinstein's misestimation of the likely guidelines range fell below the prevailing professional norm for counseling a client during plea negotiations. Despite having the benefit of that assumption, Jones has failed to demonstrate that but for counsel's error, the result of the proceeding would have been different. He has not shown that there was a reasonable probability either that a firm, favorable plea offer would have been presented to him by the prosecution or that any similarly favorable sentencing recommendation would have been accepted by the court. See Lafler, 566 U.S. at 164.

         It is undisputed that no formal written offer to plead guilty in the form of a drafted plea agreement proposal was ever presented to Weinstein by the prosecutors. Such an offer would have had to have been authorized by the line prosecutors' supervisors, (see Tr. of Evid. Hr'g 89, 116- 17, Mar. 22, 2018 (dkt. no. 438)), and there is no evidence that either of the prosecutors in this case, Leah Foley and George Vien, ever sought-much less obtained-such approval. Further, on the basis of the hearing evidence, I find as a fact that while there were likely some preliminary and informal discussions about Jones's pleading guilty, such preliminary communications never crystalized into even a concrete verbal offer by the government, i.e., one with specific terms such as the counts to which Jones would plead guilty, the guideline range to be applied, any sentencing arguments to be foregone, or the particular facts that Jones would admit. Cf. United States v. Merlino, 109 F.Supp.3d 368, 376 (D. Mass. 2015) (analyzing existence of formal offer under general contract principles for purposes of counsel's duty to convey plea offers to clients under M ...

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