U.S. v. Bradley

Citation455 F.3d 453
Decision Date25 July 2006
Docket NumberNo. 02-4390.,No. 02-4402.,No. 02-4393.,02-4390.,02-4393.,02-4402.
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Tavon BRADLEY, Defendant-Appellant. United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Solomon Levi Jones, a/k/a Monkey Bird, Defendant-Appellant. United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Eric Lamont Bennett, a/k/a E Man, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit
455 F.3d 453
UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Tavon BRADLEY, Defendant-Appellant.
United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Solomon Levi Jones, a/k/a Monkey Bird, Defendant-Appellant.
United States of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Eric Lamont Bennett, a/k/a E Man, Defendant-Appellant.
No. 02-4390.
No. 02-4393.
No. 02-4402.
United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.
Argued: May 26, 2006.
Decided: July 25, 2006.

Page 454


Page 455

ARGUED: Harvey Greenberg, Towson, Maryland; Jack B. Rubin, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellants. Andrew George Warrens Norman, Assistant United States Attorney, Office of the United States Attorney, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Joseph J. Gigliotti, Silver Spring, Maryland, for Appellant Eric Lamont Bennett; Gerald D. Glass, Towson, Maryland, for Appellant Tavon Bradley. Rod J. Rosenstein, United States Attorney, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellee.

Before MOTZ, GREGORY, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.

Vacated and remanded by published opinion. Judge MOTZ wrote the opinion, in which Judge GREGORY and Judge DUNCAN joined.


MOTZ, Circuit Judge:

After several extensive plea discussions with the district court, Tavon Bradley, Solomon Jones, and Eric Bennett (collectively "the Defendants") pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and of illegal use of firearms. On appeal, they argue that their guilty pleas were not voluntary because the court impermissibly participated in plea negotiations, repeatedly encouraging them to plead guilty. As the Government properly concedes, the record indisputably reflects this participation and encouragement. Because Defendants have demonstrated that this admitted plain error adversely affected their substantial rights and because we conclude that the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings, we must vacate the judgment of the district court and remand for further proceedings.


Bennett was the leader of a wide-ranging and violent crack cocaine distribution ring that operated in Baltimore and Westminster, Maryland; Jones and Bradley participated in that conspiracy. According to the Government, pursuant to Bennett's orders, Jones killed a participant in a sham drug transaction, and Bradley broke into an apartment and attempted to rob the occupant at gunpoint. The Government's evidence included audiotapes and videotapes of the Bennett organization's activities and the testimony of several cooperating co-conspirators.

On August 24, 2000, a grand jury indicted Bennett on conspiracy and substantive

Page 456

charges of distribution and possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. Six months later, on February 21, 2001, Bennett indicated his willingness, pursuant to a written plea agreement, to plead guilty to the conspiracy count, with the Government recommending a ten-year sentence. During the Rule 11 colloquy, Bennett stated, "I'm pleading guilty to this ten years." The district court explained to Bennett that he would be pleading guilty to an offense that carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of life without parole. After Bennett learned that the court could impose a sentence exceeding ten years, he stated that he did not wish to plead guilty and the court terminated the colloquy.

The next month, on March 29, the grand jury returned a superseding indictment that included the following five counts: 1) conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute fifty grams or more of crack cocaine, 2) distribution of five grams or more of crack cocaine, 3) possession of two firearms in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, 4) possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime, and 5) possession with intent to distribute a detectable amount of crack cocaine.1 The superseding indictment charged Bennett with all five counts, Bradley with counts one and four, and Jones with counts one and three. Bradley and Jones were arraigned in May 2001, and both entered pleas of not guilty. In addition to these federal charges, Bradley and Jones also faced related charges in state court: Bradley on conspiracy and robbery charges, and Jones on murder charges.

During a pre-trial conference on November 26, 2001, Jones's counsel stated that Jones wanted to plead guilty and that counsel had been working with federal officials and Jones's state counsel to coordinate a disposition covering both the federal and state charges. The Government responded that negotiations for a plea agreement with Jones were continuing. However, no plea materialized.

On January 28, 2002, the district court empaneled a jury and began the trial. The next day, January 29, Oscar Bennett, a cooperating co-conspirator and Eric Bennett's cousin, testified at length about the scope and activities of the conspiracy. Before the jury entered the courtroom on the following morning, January 30, the court dismissed counsel for the Government and addressed the Defendants and their counsel directly. The court stated, "I know that each of you probably ha[s] some experience in the state system. But I am just taking this opportunity, now that you have sat through a full day of testimony of one government witness, I just want to make sure that you fully understand what is going on here." The court then listed the evidence that the Government planned to present during the course of the trial and said: "Now, again, I don't know what the status was at any time about the plea negotiations in this case, and I don't know if there is a possibility for any further discussions." The court continued, "before we go forward, I felt it my responsibility, my responsibility to address each of you individually to let you know what you are facing here...." The court pointed out that, in its view, Oscar Bennett's testimony on the first day of trial demonstrated that

Page 457

the Government's predictions during its opening statement about the strength of the evidence against the Defendants "were right on." The court emphasized that a life sentence in federal court is truly a life sentence: "You are all young men, and if there was a chance that later in life, you could be released back into the community, I think it is something you seriously need to consider...."

In response to the court's comments, counsel for Bennett described his plea negotiations with the Government. The Government had offered Bennett the opportunity to plead to a possession count with a recommended sentence of ten years; Bennett signed that agreement but later rejected it during the Rule 11 colloquy discussed above. Counsel for Bennett indicated that he later tried to negotiate for a sentence of fifteen years but that those efforts were unsuccessful. Counsel for Jones indicated that Jones would have been willing to agree to a plea for a sentence of ten to fifteen years but had been unable to reach an agreement with the Government. The court then said, "frankly, based on what I am hearing now, ... your clients may be better off pleading to the indictment. And I say that in all candor." Counsel for Bradley responded that his client would have been willing to plead to the firearms count, which carried a maximum sentence of ten years, but the Government was not willing to go below fifteen years.

The court then asked the prosecutors to return to the courtroom and indicated that "I have real concern that there may well be a miscarriage of justice taking place in this courtroom." The court explained that his colloquy with the Defendants and their counsel suggested "that we are now in the third day of what is likely to be a five- or six-week trial that really nobody wants to take place." The court noted,

As we all know, if [the Defendants] go to trial, the likelihood of a life sentence is very real and very substantial. Part of my motivation for asking [the Government] to leave the room in the first place, not knowing where this discussion was going to lead, was to give each of the defendants an opportunity to address me, if he chose, after having had the benefit of the voir dire process, [the prosecutor's] excellent opening statement, and Mr. Oscar Bennett's day-long testimony, which, to anybody sitting here, was obviously extraordinarily incriminatory of all the defendants. It is no big stretch, in fact, to observe that theoretically the government could rest its case right now on the basis of the testimony of the one witness. If the fact finder believed Mr. Oscar Bennett's testimony, or most of it, the case would essentially be over. Counsel for the Government stated that the Government had negotiated in good faith and that it stood "ready to offer a plea agreement that is consistent with justice in this case." The court replied that it would dismiss the jury early for lunch "to give you folks a chance to see whether this rather unusual hearing might result in a termination of these proceedings."

The court cautioned, "This is very dangerous because if the proceedings are not terminated, there is the risk that the Court even took in initiating this exchange with counsel that one or more of the defendants ... or an appellate court could regard the Court's actions as inappropriate, and, in some form or fashion, coercive." The court stated, however, that it was not its intention to coerce anyone. The court also indicated that it was mystified as to why Bennett refused to plead guilty after signing the initial plea agreement: "I don't know what it was that caused that plea to

Page 458

break down. It was a wonderful offer. It was an incredible offer."

After a three-hour recess, the Government told the court that the parties had been unable to reach an agreement. The court asked why negotiations had been unsuccessful, and Jones's counsel responded that there were problems with the sentence. The court expressed puzzlement that the...

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