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United States v. Coriolant

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

July 10, 2017

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
v.
BENSON CORIOLANT

         SECTION I

          ORDER AND REASONS

          LANCE M. AFRICK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is a motion[1] filed by Benson Coriolant to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. The government opposes[2] the motion.

         For the foregoing reasons, the Court concludes that an evidentiary hearing is not required, Coriolant's motion is DENIED, and his post-conviction application is DISMISSED WITH PREJUDICE.

         BACKGROUND

         On September 20, 2012, Coriolant was convicted by a jury on all counts of a 4-count superseding indictment related to his role in a multi-state sex trafficking operation involving R.V., a female minor who Coriolant directed to engage in prostitution for Coriolant's personal financial gain.[3] Count 1 charged that Coriolant conspired to commit sex trafficking of R.V. for knowing financial benefit in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1594(c).[4] Count 2 charged that Coriolant knowingly committed sex trafficking of R.V. in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1591(a) and 2.[5] Count 3 charged that Coriolant knowingly coerced and enticed R.V. to travel from Florida to Louisiana to engage in sexual activity that is illegal under Louisiana law in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2422(a) and 2.[6] Count 4 charged that Coriolant knowingly used facilities and means of interstate commerce to coerce and entice R.V. to engage in sexual activity that is illegal under Louisiana law in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2422(b) and 2.[7] The indictment also contained notices of forfeiture for sex trafficking of children under 18 U.S.C. § 1594(d), and for coercion and enticement under 18 U.S.C. § 2428.[8]

         On February 7, 2013, the Court sentenced Coriolant to a total term of imprisonment of 480 months, consisting of 480 months each as to counts 1, 2, and 4, and 240 months as to count 3, all to be served concurrently.[9] Coriolant appealed his conviction and sentence, arguing that the Court improperly participated in his plea negotiations. The Fifth Circuit affirmed the judgment against Coriolant on September 8, 2015.[10]

         Coriolant filed the present motion pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 on December 8, 2016. The government does not challenge the timeliness of the motion.

         STANDARD OF LAW

         Section 2255 is designed to remedy constitutional errors and other injuries that could not be brought on direct appeal and would result in injustice if left unaddressed. See United States v. Williamson, 183 F.3d 458, 462 (5th Cir. 1999). To do so, § 2255 provides a prisoner in federal custody with four grounds upon which the sentencing court may “vacate, set aside, or correct the sentence”: (1) “the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States;” (2) “the court was without jurisdiction to impose such sentence;” (3) “the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law;” or (4) the sentence “is otherwise subject to collateral attack.” 28 U.S.C. § 2255(a); see Hill v. United States, 368 U.S. 424, 426-27 (1962).

         Pursuant to § 2255, the Court must grant the moving prisoner a hearing to determine the issues and make findings of fact and conclusions of law unless “the motion, files, and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.” United States v. Bartholomew, 974 F.2d 39, 41 (5th Cir. 1992). The § 2255 proceeding functions as “an independent and collateral inquiry into the validity of the conviction.” United States v. Hayman, 342 U.S. 205, 222-23 (1952). This inquiry does not extend, however, to the misapplication of sentencing guidelines. See Williamson, 183 F.3d at 462.

         “The Supreme Court has emphasized repeatedly that a collateral challenge may not do service for an appeal.” United States v. Shaid, 937 F.2d 228, 231 (5th Cir. 1991) (internal quotation marks omitted). “[T]he general rule [is] that claims not raised on direct appeal may not be raised on collateral review unless the petitioner shows cause and prejudice, ” Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500, 504 (2003), or actual innocence, Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614, 622 (1998). However, the Supreme Court has held that “failure to raise an ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claim on direct appeal does not bar the claim from being brought” in a § 2255 proceeding. Massaro, 538 U.S. at 509; see also United States v. Johnson, 124 F.App'x 914, 915 (5th Cir. 2005).

         DISCUSSION

         Coriolant asserts eighteen grounds for relief.[11] As an initial matter, ground 6-which centers on the Court's alleged involvement in the plea negotiations in Coriolant's case[12]-was raised on direct appeal, see United States v. Coriolant, 624 Fed.Appx. 868 (5th Cir. 2015), and therefore “should not be considered in a § 2255 motion, ” United States v. Sullivan, 241 Fed.Appx. 217, 219 (5th Cir. 2007) (citing United States v. Kalish, 780 F.2d 506, 508 (5th Cir. 1986)). Therefore, the Court will not entertain ground 6.

         Coriolant's remaining seventeen grounds take aim at the representation of his trial and appellate counsel, which he claims was constitutionally deficient. Coriolant also raises one substantive claim with respect to the Court's jury charge as to counts 3 and 4 of the superseding indictment.

         A.

         In Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court articulated a two-part test for determining whether one's assistance of counsel was constitutionally deficient. This test requires the petitioner to show both (1) deficient performance of counsel and (2) resulting prejudice from the deficient performance. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687.

         A petitioner can demonstrate deficient performance by “show[ing] that counsel's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness.” Id. at 688. In evaluating a counsel's past performance on his client's behalf, “a court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” Id. at 689. In other words, “[j]udicial scrutiny of counsel's performance must be highly deferential.” Id. The Court must take care to avoid casting counsel's every “act or omission” in the “harsh light of hindsight.” Bell v. Cone, 535 U.S. 685, 702 (2002).

         Strickland's second prong requires a petitioner to show that counsel's deficient performance prejudiced him. Prejudice requires “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. A “reasonable probability” is “a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome” of the judicial proceeding. Id. In the context of trial errors, the petitioner must show that his “counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the [petitioner] of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” Id. at 687. “[T]he mere possibility of a different outcome is not sufficient” to show prejudice. Crane v. Johnson, 178 F.3d 309, 312 (5th Cir. 1999). Rather, “[t]he petitioner must affirmatively prove, not just allege, prejudice.” Day v. Quarterman, 566 F.3d 527, 536 (5th Cir. 2009) (emphasis added).

         The performance of Coriolant's appellate counsel “is evaluated under the same Strickland standard as is trial counsel's performance.” United States v. Brumfield, No. 16-11463, 2016 WL 7385532, at *5 (E.D. La. Dec. 21, 2016) (Africk, J.) (citing United States v. Williamson, 183 F.3d 458, 462 (5th Cir. 1999)). In this context, “effective assistance of counsel does not mean counsel who will raise every nonfrivolous ground of appeal available, ” but “[r]ather, it means . . . counsel performing in a reasonably effective manner.” Green v. Johnson, 160 F.3d 1029, 1043 (5th Cir. 1998). Moreover, as with a court's evaluation of trial counsel's performance, appellate “[c]ounsel is not deficient for, and prejudice does not issue from, failure to raise a legally meritless claim.” Smith v. Puckett, 907 F.2d 581, 585 n.6 (5th Cir. 1990); see also Medellin v. Dretke, 371 F.3d 270, 279 (5th Cir. 2004) (“Because the claim . . . is without merit, the claim of ineffective assistance of counsel for not raising the issue on appeal is, likewise, without merit.”).

         The petitioner must satisfy both prongs of the Strickland test in order to be successful on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 697. A court is not required to address Strickland's two prongs in any particular order, and if it is possible to dispose of an ineffective assistance of counsel claim without addressing both prongs, then “that course should be followed.” Id.

         B.

         Coriolant's seventeen grounds focusing on the representation of his trial and appellate counsel can be sorted into five groups. Seven of the grounds center on particular omissions by Coriolant's trial counsel during the presentation of the evidence (Group 1).[13] Two of the grounds center on motions that trial counsel refrained from making before and during trial (Group 2).[14] Two of the grounds center on trial counsel's approach to the jury instructions (Group 3).[15] Four of the grounds center on trial counsel's approach to the sentencing phase of the proceedings (Group 4).[16] Lastly, the final two grounds center on appellate counsel's performance and the cumulative effect of all preceding grounds (Group 5).[17]

         The Court will address each group in turn, as well as Coriolant's substantive objection to the Court's jury charge.

         i.

         Group 1 focuses on particular omissions by Coriolant's trial counsel during the presentation of the evidence (grounds 1-4, 7, 8, 16):

• Trial counsel's “failure to object to, and otherwise move to strike, ” Officer Archuleta's testimony concerning the facts that led law enforcement officials to recover R.V.;[18]
• Trial counsel's “failure to object to, and otherwise move to strike, ” Officer Rohde's testimony concerning the discovery of “child pornography” on a computer seized from R.V.;[19]
• Trial counsel's “fail[ure] to move to exclude, object or move to strike” use of the terms “prostitute” and “prostitution” by witnesses during the government's case-in-chief;[20]
• Trial counsel's “fail[ure] to object to” Special Agent Jennifer Terry's testimony about particular words and phrases used in prostitution rings;[21]
• Trial counsel permitting R.V. to use the term “prostitution” during both direct and cross examinations;[22]
• Trial counsel's “failure to object to” Special Agent Terry's voice identification of Coriolant's voice;[23] and • Trial counsel's “fail[ure] to object to” Detective Derek Stigerts' testimony about “pimp/prostitute culture and relationship [sic].”[24]

         The Court concludes that Coriolant has failed to show that any of the grounds in Group 1 satisfy Strickland's first prong. Each of the omissions that Coriolant highlights in these grounds can be explained as a strategic decision by reasonable and competent trial counsel. For example, trial counsel's non-objection to Officer Archuleta's testimony supplying background facts that led to law enforcement's recovery of R.V. can be comfortably explained as a judgment that objecting to the testimony would be unlikely to succeed[25] and/or likely to be viewed unfavorably by the jury. Similarly, trial counsel's non-objection to Officer Rohde's testimony about the discovery of pornography featuring R.V. on a computer seized from R.V.;[26] witnesses' uses of the terms “prostitute” or “prostitution”;[27] Special Agent Terry's explanations of common terms used in prostitution rings;[28] Detective Stigerts' testimony about the relationships and culture between “pimps” and their prostitutes;[29] and Special Agent Terry's identification of Coriolant's voice[30] are all easily explained based on those same considerations. “[Defense counsel] may have concluded that the dangers inherent in objecting, ” such as “losing the objection or appearing obstructionist to the jury, ” sufficiently “outweighed the marginal benefit in preventing” the jury from hearing the witness's testimony. Knox v. Johnson, 224 F.3d 470, 480 (5th Cir. 2000). “Such a calculation was surely the defense counsel's to make.” Id.

         Moreover, assuming arguendo that Coriolant's trial counsel was constitutionally deficient in all of the ways that Coriolant alleges in Group 1-a conclusion, to be clear, that the Court does not reach-the Court concludes that Coriolant has failed to show Strickland prejudice. Cf. Henderson v. Cockrell, 333 F.3d 592, 603 (“Even assuming that counsel should have objected, and assuming further that the objection would have been sustained, there is not a reasonable probability that the jury would have acquitted [the defendant].”). Prejudice requires “a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. At Coriolant's trial, however, the government presented “overwhelming evidence of [Coriolant's] guilt.” United States v. Goodley, 183 Fed.App'x 419, 425 (5th Cir. 2006) (per curiam). That evidence included the testimony of numerous witnesses, both lay and expert; forensic evidence; public records; business records; advertisements; receipts; photographs; recordings; text messages; and other correspondence, among other exhibits.[31]

         Coriolant has not demonstrated that any of the grounds in Group 1-grounds 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8, or 16-satisfy Strickland.

         ii.

         Group 2 focuses on motions that trial counsel refrained from making before and during trial (grounds 5, 11):

• Trial counsel's “fail[ure] to move for dismissal of the superseding indictment on grounds of selective prosecution”;[32] and
• Trial counsel's “failure” to renew the motion for judgment of acquittal.[33]

         The Court concludes that Coriolant has failed to show that his trial counsel's alleged “fail[ure]” to move for dismissal on selective prosecution grounds satisfies either prong of Strickland. A selective prosecution claim requires a defendant to first “make a prima facie showing that he has been singled out for prosecution while others similarly situated and committing the same acts have not.” United States v. Hoover, 727 F.2d 387, 389 (5th Cir. 1984) (emphasis in original). Then, a defendant must show “that the government's discriminatory selection of him for prosecution has been invidious or in bad faith in that it rests upon such impermissible considerations as race, religion, or the desire to prevent his exercise of constitutional rights.” Id. If a defendant satisfies these requirements, “then the burden shifts to the government to demonstrate a legitimate basis for selecting the defendant for prosecution.” Id.

         Coriolant has not made the necessary prima facie showing. Nor has he shown that the government's decision to prosecute him was “invidious or in bad faith.” Id. In fact, Coriolant has offered no factual allegations that suggest that a claim of selective prosecution would have succeeded. As a motion for dismissal on grounds of selective prosecution would have failed, trial counsel had no reason to raise it. See United States v. Kimler, 167 F.3d 889, 893 (5th Cir. 1999) (“An attorney's failure to raise a meritless argument thus cannot form the basis of a successful ineffective assistance of counsel claim because the result of the proceeding would not have been different had the attorney raised the issue.”).

         The Court likewise concludes that Coriolant has failed to demonstrate that his trial counsel's alleged “failure” to move for a renewed judgment of acquittal satisfies either of Strickland's prongs. To succeed on this ground, Coriolant must demonstrate that “it [wa]s a reasonable probability that had counsel moved for a judgment of acquittal, the motion would have been granted on the basis of insufficiency of evidence.” United States v. Cruz, 55 Fed.App'x 525, 525 (5th Cir. 2003). However, “viewing the evidence and the inferences that may be drawn from it in the light most favorable to the verdict”-as the Fifth Circuit has instructed courts to do-the Court determines that “a rational jury could have found the essential elements of the offenses beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. As previously explained, the trial produced “overwhelming evidence” supporting Coriolant's guilt.

         Coriolant has not demonstrated that grounds 5 or 11 satisfy Strickland.

         iii.

         Group 3 focuses on trial counsel's approach to the jury instructions (grounds 9 and 10):

• Trial counsel's “failure to object” to the Court's jury charge with respect to counts 3 and 4 (and the Court's jury charge itself);[34] and
• Trial counsel's “failure to request” certain jury instructions.[35]

         As an initial matter, the Court notes that Coriolant's substantive objection to the jury charge was not raised on direct appeal. As previously explained, “the general rule [is] that claims not raised on direct appeal may not be raised on collateral review unless the petitioner shows cause and prejudice, ” Massaro, 538 U.S. at 504, or actual innocence, Bousley, 523 U.S. at 622. As “[a]ttorney error short of ineffective assistance of counsel does not constitute cause for a procedural default even when that default occurs on appeal rather than at trial, ” the Court will analyze the jury charge as to counts 3 and 4 through the lens of Strickland. Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 492 (1986).

         Count 3 charged Coriolant with a violation of § 2422(a), and count 4 charged Coriolant with a violation of § 2422(b). Section 2422(a) makes it a crime to knowingly entice or coerce, or knowingly attempt to entice or coerce, any person to travel in interstate commerce to engage in prostitution or in sexual activity “for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.” Section 2422(b) makes it a crime to use a means or facility of interstate commerce-e.g., a bus, telephone, computer, the Internet-to knowingly entice or coerce, or knowingly attempt to entice or coerce, a minor to engage in prostitution or in ...


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