Blair v. United States 2255

CourtUnited States District Courts. 4th Circuit. United States District Court (Maryland)
PartiesWALTER LLOYD BLAIR Petitioner v. USA - 2255 Respondent
Docket NumberCrim. No. PJM 08-0505,Civil No. PJM 14-766
Decision Date04 November 2016

USA - 2255 Respondent

Civil No. PJM 14-766
Crim. No. PJM 08-0505


November 4, 2016


Walter Lloyd Blair has filed a Motion to Vacate, Set Aside, or Correct his Sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, claiming that both his trial and appellate counsel were constitutionally ineffective, resulting in the denial of his Sixth Amendment rights. Pet'r's Mot. Vacate, ECF No. 255. The Government counters that, in every respect, Blair has failed to make out a claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). The Court agrees with the Government. For the reasons that follow, the Court will DENY Blair's Motion.1

Factual and Procedural Background

In August 2003 in Richmond, Virginia, Elizabeth Nicely purchased a Cadillac Escalade automobile in her own name. She did so, however, for Anthony Rankine, a known drug dealer,

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who supplied the down payment and promised to pay off the purchase money loan for the car.2 Rankine conducted a large marijuana distribution operation in the Richmond area, where he regularly received 500-pound crates of marijuana, which he paid for in cash rubber-banded in $1,000 stacks. Soon after the Escalade was purchased, Nicely agreed to store a safe belonging to Rankine in her house in Richmond, without having any access to the contents of the safe herself, even though she knew Rankine was a drug dealer. A short time later, Rankine's girlfriend—not Nicely—was murdered, and Rankine went missing. Rankine, too, was eventually found murdered. At that point, Nicely realized she was in possession of a safe that almost certainly contained drug money and that she could be in danger. She therefore undertook to move the safe to a storage facility. In fact, Nicely soon did begin to receive threatening phone calls about the money in the safe, which led her to contact a coworker, Michael Henry, for advice on how to handle the situation. Henry told Nicely she needed to speak with a criminal defense attorney and shortly thereafter the two of them were referred to Walter Blair, Esquire, a criminal defense attorney, whose principal office was in Silver Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland. Rankine, Nicely, Henry, and Blair as it happened, were all originally from Jamaica.

On November 4, 2003, Blair received a phone call from Nicely explaining that she was in possession of a safe she believed contained drug money belonging to a known drug trafficker, Anthony Rankine. Later that day, Nicely and Henry met with Blair at his office in Silver Spring, at which Nicely repeated that she had a safe containing Rankine's drug proceeds, and showed Blair online media coverage indicating that Rankine's disappearance and his girlfriend's murder were connected to a Jamaican drug ring. Blair requested that they open the safe, which was still

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in Richmond, and bring back the contents to his office in Silver Spring. Nicely also told Blair that she had purchased an Escalade automobile for Rankine under her name.

Nicely and Henry emptied the safe without counting the money and, on November 6, brought it in a duffle bag back to Blair's office in Silver Spring. Blair and Henry proceeded to count approximately $170,000 in cash taken from the duffle bag, but did so without Nicely in the room so as to "protect her." However, Blair thereafter told Nicely there was only about $70,000 in the bag. Blair also created a cover story for both Nicely and Henry involving the Jamaican custom known as "partner money" with which both Nicely and Henry were familiar.3 Blair then proceeded to set up a real estate corporation for Nicely, which he called "Jay Paul Property Management," and enlisted Vassel Clarke, a mortgage broker, to purchase real estate on behalf of Nicely.

On November 7, 2003, Nicely opened two bank accounts into which she deposited some, but not all, of the money from the duffle bag. When Blair found himself unable to open a business account for Nicely's corporation, he instead opened an account in the name of his law firm, Blair and Lee, P.C., depositing $6,000 in the account, and retaining an additional $1,000 for himself as a fee for setting up the corporation. A few days later, Blair gave Clarke an additional $31,000 from the duffle bag to purchase real estate for Nicely. Clarke, on Nicely's behalf, eventually purchased a house in Washington, D.C., and other real property in Maryland.

After learning of Rankine's death—but before she contacted Blair—Nicely had received a phone call from one of Rankine's associates, Dashawn Saunders, asking for permission to retrieve the Escalade from an automotive shop in Richmond. Nicely gave him permission to do

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this, but when Saunders arrived at the shop, he was arrested on drug trafficking charges. The Escalade was found to contain $42,000 in drug proceeds that Saunders had previously received. Richard Bernard, an associate of Saunders, was also arrested on drug charges in Virginia.

During Nicely's initial meeting with Blair on November 4, 2003, she expressed concern that she had been getting troubling phone calls; in one, she stated, someone told her that Saunders needed the drug money for his legal defense. On November 6, 2003, Blair retained Virginia attorneys David Boone, Esquire, and James Yoffy, Esquire, to represent Saunders and Bernard, both of whom were under arrest on federal drug conspiracy charges. To compensate the two Virginia attorneys, Blair used cash from the duffle bag Nicely and Henry had brought him to purchase three separate $10,000 cashier's checks—one for each lawyer and one for Blair himself as co-counsel for Saunders. Blair also set aside money to retrieve the Escalade Nicely had purchased for Rankine.

On November 12, 2003, the FBI contacted Nicely in regard to the Escalade, which by then had been linked to the drug traffickers. Nicely answered none of their questions, but referred the agents to Blair. Nicely then went to Blair's office to discuss how she should handle questions from the FBI. Blair instructed her to only discuss the Escalade, and that she should never mention the money from the safe. Blair tape recorded Nicely rehearsing what she would say to the FBI. The following day, Blair provided Nicely with a letter she was supposed to memorize, which detailed the "partner money" story and indicated that Nicely was only involved in paying legal fees for Saunders and Bernard because they were her relatives. Nicely was not, in fact, related to either individual.

On November 17, 2003, Blair sought admission pro hac vice to represent Saunders in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia in the matter of United States v.

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Philip Jazir Thompson, Crim. No. JRS-03-420.4 Blair represented to the court that he had never been reprimanded by any court. This was not true. Not only had Blair been previously reprimanded; the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals had suspended his license to practice for witness tampering. Blair's application for admission to the Virginia federal court was granted, but he did not thereafter make an appearance in that court.

On November 5, 2008, Blair was charged in an indictment in this Court with fourteen counts of criminal activity, including money laundering, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, making false statements, and failing to file income tax returns. Indictment, ECF No. 1. At his trial, he was represented by David Williams, Esquire. Entry of Appearance at 1, ECF No. 142. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury convicted Blair of eight counts of money laundering under 18 U.S.C. § 1956 (Counts One through Eight); one count of money laundering under 18 U.S.C. § 1957 (Count Nine); one count of witness tampering under 18 U.S.C. § 1512 (Count Ten); one count of obstructing justice under 18 U.S.C. §1503(a) (Count Eleven); one count of making a false statement under 18 U.S.C. § 1001(a)(2) (Count Twelve); and two counts of failing to file an income tax return under 26 U.S.C. § 7203 (Counts Thirteen and Fourteen). Verdict Form at 1-4, ECF No. 165.

At his sentencing on April 23, 2010, Blair was represented by Eric Hans Kirchman, Esquire, and Kenneth Robinson, Esquire. Judgment and Commitment Order at 1, ECF No. 204. After hearing from the Government, defense counsel, and Blair, the Court sentenced Blair to ninety-seven months imprisonment on Counts One through Eleven, sixty months on Count Twelve, and twelve months on Counts Thirteen and Fourteen, all sentences to run concurrently. Judgment and Commitment Order at 4, ECF No. 204.

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On April 29, 2010, Blair, represented by Kirchman and Robinson, appealed his conviction and sentence to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Notice of Appeal at 1, ECF No. 203. Ultimately, the Fourth Circuit affirmed Blair's convictions on all counts but Count Eleven (Obstruction of Justice), which was reversed for insufficient evidence. United States v. Blair, 661 F.3d 755, 766-70 (4th Cir. 2011). The case was remanded to this Court for resentencing. Id. at 775. The Supreme Court thereafter denied Blair's petition for writ of certiorari. Blair v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 2740 (mem.), 183 L.Ed.2d. 615 (2012).

At Blair's resentencing before this Court on March 19, 2012, he again received a sentence of ninety-seven months imprisonment on the remaining viable counts, all the sentences to run concurrently. Am. J. at 4, ECF No. 242. On March 28, 2012, Blair filed a second appeal, this time representing himself. Notice of Appeal at 1, ECF No. 244. On this second appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed this Court in full. United States v. Blair, 508 F. App'x 225, 1 (4th Cir. 2013). The Fourth Circuit reviewed Blair's arguments and concluded that all the challenges to his convictions and most of his sentencing claims were foreclosed by the mandate rule.5 Id. To the extent Blair's sentencing challenges were not barred by the mandate rule,...

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