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United States v. Neal

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

March 4, 2015

UNITED STATES,
v.
NEAL, ET AL., Section

ORDER & REASONS

CARL J. BARBIER, District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendant Byron Neal (Petitioner)'s Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct Sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (Rec. Doc. 259) and the Government's opposition thereto. (Rec. Doc. 264) Because the Court has found the record to be sufficient, no evidentiary hearing is required. Having considered the motion and memoranda of counsel, the record, and the applicable law, the Court finds that the motion should be DENIED for the reasons set forth more fully below.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

On December 13, 2007, a Federal Grand Jury returned a three-count indictment charging Petitioner for violations of the Federal Controlled Substance Act. (Rec. Doc. 1) The indictment included charges for two counts of knowingly and intentionally distributing fifty grams or more of cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(A) (Counts One and Two) and for one count of knowingly and intentionally possessing with intent to distribute a quantity of cocaine base in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and (b)(1)(C) (Count 3). Id . Petitioner pleaded not guilty to the indictment during the arraignment on December 17, 2007. (Rec. Doc. 5)

Petitioner was initially represented by the Federal Public Defender's office. (Rec. Doc. 8) Subsequently, on March 26, 2008, a Motion to Enroll as Counsel of Record was filed by Daniel E. Becnel, III, and the Court granted the motion on March 27, 2008. (Rec. Docs. 14, 16) Petitioner's counsel moved to withdraw as counsel on November 26, 2008. (Rec. Doc. 33) Although the motion was initially denied by the Court on December 1, 2008, Petitioner's counsel was permitted to withdraw during a pretrial conference on January 28, 2009. (Rec. Docs. 34, 43) The Magistrate Judge subsequently appointed the Federal Public Defender's office to represent Petitioner. (Rec. Doc. 45) His new counsel, John-Michael Lawrence, enrolled shortly thereafter. (Rec. Doc. 48)

On February 5, 2009, a federal grand jury returned a superseding indictment adding Petitioner's brother, Shad Neal, as a defendant, as well as two additional counts. (Rec. Doc. 52) The additional counts included charges that Petitioner and his brother conspired to murder a person assisting the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1111, 1114, and 1117 (Count Four) and tampered with a witness or informant in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1512(a)(1)(A) and 2 (Count Five). Id . Petitioner pleaded not guilty to all charges at the second arraignment. (Rec. Doc. 57)

After the superseding indictment was returned, Petitioner's counsel notified the government that Petitioner planned to assert an insanity defense pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12.2(a)-(b). (Rec. Doc. 66) In response, the Government filed an unopposed motion seeking to have Petitioner undergo a psychiatric or psychological examination to determine his sanity at the time of the offense. (Rec. Doc. 69) The Court ordered that Petitioner be committed to the custody of the Attorney General and transported to a federal medical facility for a psychiatric or psychological examination and evaluation pursuant to 18 U.S.C. §§ 4242 and 4247(b). (Rec. Doc. 70) Following his examination of Petitioner, Dr. Jeremiah Dwyer issued a Forensic Evaluation Report, wherein he concluded Petitioner was sane and was not experiencing any psychological or physical symptoms at the time of the offense. See (Sealed Rec. Doc. 179-2, pp. 49-50, 58)

Petitioner's counsel also alleged that Petitioner was mentally incompetent to stand trial, prompting the Government on June 23, 2011, to file an unopposed motion seeking to have the Petitioner undergo a psychiatric or psychological examination to determine his competency pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 4241(a) and 4247(b). (Rec. Doc. 168) On the same day, the Court granted the motion and ordered that Petitioner be evaluated by Dr. Rennie Culver to assess his competency to understand the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him or to assist properly in his defense. (Rec. Doc. 169) On June 30, 2011, the doctor issued a report in which he concluded that Petitioner was competent to stand trial. (Sealed Rec. Doc. 190, pp. 46-47)

At a hearing on July 7, 2011, the Court addressed the issue of Petitioner's competency to stand trial. After considering the expert testimony as well as the multiple evaluations filed in the record under seal, the Court determined that Petitioner was competent to stand trial. See (Sealed Rec. Doc. 190, p. 1) During the same hearing, Petitioner withdrew his Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12.2 Notice, foregoing his intent to seek a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict. (Rec. Doc. 190)

On July 18, 2011, before the trial began, Petitioner withdrew his not guilty pleas and pleaded guilty to all charges contained in the superseding indictment. (Rec. Doc. 196; Rec. Doc. 214-1, pp. 9-27) However, Petitioner moved to withdraw his guilty pleas the next day in a letter framed as a request "To Take Plea of Guilty Back." See (Rec. Docs. 204, 205) The Government filed an opposition thereto on October 11, 2011, and the Court set the matter for hearing. (Rec. Docs. 214, 215) On October 27, 2011, the Court denied Petitioner's motion to withdraw guilty plea and sentenced him to 360 months' imprisonment. (Rec. Doc. 223, p. 2; Rec. Doc. 224)

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit vacated Petitioner's convictions on Counts Four and Five and remanded for re-pleading with respect to those two counts in the indictment, [1] and affirmed his sentence with respect to the first three counts. (Rec. Doc. 249) The Fifth Circuit held that the Court violated Rule 11 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure when it failed to advise Petitioner that he could plead guilty to Counts One-Three while choosing to go to trial on Counts Four and Five. Id. at 6-12. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the Court's denial of Petitioner's motion to withdraw his guilty plea as to Counts One-Three. Id. at 12-15. Finally, the Fifth Circuit rejected Petitioner's Fair Sentencing Act challenge to the Court's 360-month sentence and affirmed the sentence. Id. at 15-17. In October of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari. (Rec. Doc. 256) Petitioner timely filed the instant motion on October 8, 2014, under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. (Rec. Doc. 259)

PARTIES' ARGUMENTS

Petitioner argues that his prison sentence should be modified for several reasons. First, Petitioner asserts that he was denied effective assistance of counsel because his attorney ignored his requests to go to trial, misrepresented the consequences of pleading guilty, and failed to properly argue his mental health issues. Id. at 15. Petitioner alleges that his attorney's ineffective assistance rendered his guilty plea involuntary since his attorney "failed to properly inform him of the potential sentencing range or the very real potential consequences of entering a guilty plea." Id. at p. 22. Second, Petitioner alleges that he had diminished mental capacity at the time of the guilty plea. Id. at p. 23 Specifically, Petitioner maintains that he "did not fully comprehend the premise of his plea or entrance of his plea as he suffers from serious mental illness and a mental retardation." Id . Petitioner also insists that his 360-month sentence failed to take into account his ongoing mental health issues and, as a result, is disproportionate to the crimes for which he was sentenced. Id . In essence, Petitioner's motion to vacate hinges on his allegation of diminished mental capacity and his ineffective assistance of counsel in light of his alleged lack of competence. Petitioner also requests that this Court conduct an evidentiary hearing to resolve his claims. Id. at 42.

In opposition, the Government argues that Petitioner is not entitled to an evidentiary hearing, his claims are either procedurally barred or without merit, and he is not entitled to post-conviction relief. See (Rec. Doc. 264, p. 5) The Government asserts that Petitioner's claims based on ineffective assistance of counsel and the voluntariness of his guilty plea are procedurally barred because they were previously addressed by the Court when the Court denied Petitioner's motion to withdraw the guilty plea, as well as when the Fifth Circuit affirmed Petitioner's guilty pleas and sentence for Counts One, Two, and Three. Id. at pp. 5, 10-12. The Government argues that Petitioner's collateral ...


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