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United States v. Harrison

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

December 13, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff - Appellee
EMANUEL JAMES HARRISON, also known as E.J., also known as Chris, Defendant-Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas

          Before HAYNES, HO, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.


         Under established Supreme Court precedent, the Sixth Amendment entitles the accused to the effective assistance of counsel. That right is infringed if counsel simultaneously represents more than one client in the same matter, and the multiple representation results in an actual conflict of interest that adversely affects the representation of the accused. See, e.g., Cuyler v. Sullivan, 446 U.S. 335, 348 (1980).

         That is precisely what Emanuel James Harrison alleges here. In support of his 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion seeking relief from his federal conviction, Harrison presented evidence that his counsel advised one of his co-defendants to plead guilty, prior to his own plea agreement-and that his counsel did so in a manner that prejudiced Harrison's defense.

         To be sure, it may turn out that there is an innocent explanation for what his counsel did. The decision of the district court to deny relief to Harrison under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 may be ultimately vindicated. But "a defendant who objects to multiple representation must have the opportunity to show that potential conflicts impermissibly imperil his right to a fair trial." Id. And, we have repeatedly held that "'[a] motion brought under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 can be denied without a hearing only if the motion, files, and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief.'" United States v. Cavitt, 550 F.3d 430, 442 (5th Cir. 2008) (quoting United States v. Bartholomew, 974 F.2d 39, 41 (5th Cir. 1992)).

         Based on established Supreme Court and circuit precedent, and the evidence presented by Harrison, the magistrate judge should have held an evidentiary hearing to give the parties the opportunity to contest the merits of Harrison's claim of an actual conflict of interest. Because no such hearing was held, we reverse the judgment of the district court and remand the case for further proceedings.


         Emanuel James Harrison pled guilty to conspiracy to defraud the United States by filing false claims. His plea agreement provided for an 84-month sentence. The district court re-arraigned Harrison in the same proceeding as two of his co-defendants, Jason Altman and Fread Jenkins. The three co-defendants all agreed that they were pleading guilty voluntarily and had not been threatened, forced, or coerced.

         Five weeks later, Harrison filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea, asserting his innocence and arguing that his plea was not entered knowingly and voluntarily due to pressure from counsel. The district court denied Harrison's motion to withdraw his plea, finding, in relevant part, that his assertion of innocence "without more" was insufficient to allow him to withdraw his plea, and that Harrison had provided "no evidence as to the pressure, threats, or intimidation."

         At his sentencing hearing, Harrison argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel when counsel advised him to enter the plea agreement despite his assertion of innocence because counsel believed he would be prejudiced by a prior sexual assault conviction. Harrison did not mention that one of his attorneys was allegedly burdened by an actual conflict of interest due to his advising Jenkins regarding the plea agreements. The district court denied his request to withdraw his guilty plea. With new counsel, Harrison appealed. This court affirmed his sentence. See United States v. Harrison, 777 F.3d 227, 233 (5th Cir. 2015).

         Harrison subsequently filed a 28 U.S.C. § 2255 motion to vacate his sentence on the grounds that he received ineffective assistance of counsel because counsel pressured him to plead guilty rather than investigate his case, and also because counsel had a conflict of interest-specifically, because counsel also represented one of Harrison's co-defendants, Jenkins, during plea negotiations.

         Two sworn affidavits from Jenkins support Harrison's claim of multiple representation. But the magistrate judge found that the record contradicted Harrison's allegations of a conflict of interest, because Jenkins and his own attorney signed Jenkins's plea agreement on the day Harrison and Jenkins were rearraigned. The magistrate judge further concluded that, even accepting his allegations, Harrison had not demonstrated ineffective assistance of counsel, because he provided no more than a conclusory assertion that counsel failed to pursue a defense strategy due to divided loyalties between Harrison and Jenkins. The district court accepted the magistrate judge's findings and conclusions, denied the § 2255 motion, and denied the request for a certificate of appealability.

         Harrison filed motions in this court for a certificate of appealability and for leave to appeal in forma pauperis. A member of this court granted Harrison a certificate of appealability on the issue whether the district court abused its discretion by not holding an evidentiary hearing before denying his claim that he received ineffective assistance of ...

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