Williams v. United States, 2:14-cv-02208-SLD

CourtUnited States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. Central District of Illinois
PartiesCORY L. WILLIAMS, Petitioner, v. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.
Docket NumberNo. 2:14-cv-02208-SLD,2:14-cv-02208-SLD
Decision Date22 August 2016

CORY L. WILLIAMS, Petitioner,

No. 2:14-cv-02208-SLD


August 22, 2016


Cory Williams has filed a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255, contending in part that his guilty plea was not made voluntarily. The district judge who presided over Williams's criminal case violated Rule 11 when he opined on a draft plea agreement between Williams and the government, but Williams has not met his burden to show that he would probably have gone to trial absent the violation. The motion is DENIED.1


A federal grand jury returned a superseding indictment against Williams that charged him with two counts of armed robbery in violation of the Hobbs Act, 18 U.S.C. § 1951(a); one count of armed bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 2113(a) and (d); and three counts of brandishing a firearm during and in relation to each of the three robberies, see 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(ii). Superseding Indictment, Cr. ECF No. 11.2 The three robberies occurred on

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different days over a roughly month-long period in June and July 2011, and the Hobbs Act robberies victimized two different motels. See id. If convicted of every charge in the indictment, Williams faced a statutory minimum prison sentence of 57 years, which assumes a sentence of zero months for any of the three robberies. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 924(c)(1)(A)(ii) and (c)(1)(C)(i) (imposing consecutive 7-year mandatory minimum for first § 924(c)(1)(A)(ii) conviction and consecutive 25-year mandatory minimum for any subsequent § 924(c) conviction); Plea Agreement ¶¶ 23-24, Cr. ECF No. 19. Williams was 22 years old at the time of the crimes. See Presentence Investigation Report ("PSR") at 3, Cr. ECF No. 26.

Williams pleaded guilty pursuant to Rule 11(c)(1)(C) to the two motel robberies, the bank robbery, and the § 924(c) count attached to the bank robbery. Plea Agreement ¶ 3. In the final written agreement, the parties stipulated to the imposition of a sentence that included a 216-month term of imprisonment (comprising three concurrent 132-month terms for the motel robberies and the bank robbery, plus one 84-month term on the § 924(c) count to run consecutively to the other terms). Id. ¶ 25. The government agreed to drop the other charges.

The plea agreement contains several waivers of Williams's rights. Relevant here, Williams waived his right to collaterally attack the conviction or sentence. Plea Agreement ¶¶ 28-29. Specifically, the plea agreement reads:

Regardless of any advice his attorney has given him one way or the other . . . the defendant hereby knowingly and voluntarily waives his right to challenge any and all issues relating to his plea agreement, conviction and sentence . . . . The defendant acknowledges and agrees that the effect of this waiver is to completely waive any and all rights and ability to appeal or collaterally attack any issues relating to his conviction and to his sentence so long as the sentence is within the maximum provided in the statutes of conviction.

Id. ¶ 29. It continues:

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The defendant states that he has not been coerced, threatened, intimidated, or in any other way involuntarily persuaded to waive his rights to appeal or collaterally attack his sentence by his attorney or anyone else.

Id. ¶ 30.

The Assistant United States Attorney assigned to the case attached a draft of the plea agreement to an email addressed to Williams's attorney, to which email she copied the district judge among other recipients. That correspondence was part of the district judge's customary review of Rule 11(c)(1)(C) plea agreements before change-of-plea hearings conducted by a magistrate judge. See Resp. Ex. A, ECF No. 16-1 (memorandum from District Judge McCuskey to Magistrate Judge Bernthal regarding change of plea procedures).3 After reviewing the draft plea agreement, the district judge responded via email to the prosecutor (and copied Williams's attorney):

I have just . . . read the proposed 11(c)1(C) plea agreement. I concur with the disposition, which is exceedingly fair to the defendant. Obviously, if he is convicted at trial the defendant will be sentenced to the equivalent of a life sentence. Only a fool would refuse this plea agreement. . . . I am fully ready to try the case to a jury if the defendant wishes to proceed with a jury trial . . . .

ECF No. 1 at 30. The prosecutor's email was sent on July 3, 2013, and the district judge replied the following day. Id. Also on July 3, the magistrate judge scheduled a change of plea hearing for July 8.

The docket reflects that trial in Williams's criminal case was set to begin July 22, 2013, with an acceptance of responsibility deadline of July 8, 2013. The government filed its statement of the case; proposed jury instructions; and witness and exhibit lists on June 26, 2013. See Cr. Dkt. On July 8, 2013, Williams pleaded guilty pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(C) agreement that was materially identical to the draft previously circulated among the lawyers and the district

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judge. The magistrate judge accepted the plea via a standard colloquy, see Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(b), that included Williams's sworn admission in open court that he in fact committed the charged crimes and that he entered his guilty plea voluntarily. See Am. Mot. Ex. A at 37 (July 8, 2013 Hr'g Tr.), ECF No. 14-1. He then submitted a report and recommendation, see Fed. R. Crim. P. 59(b)(1), to the district judge stating in part that he found "the guilty plea was knowing and voluntary." Cr. ECF No. 22. Williams did not object to the report and recommendation. The district judge approved the report and recommendation in August 2013, and subsequently imposed the agreed-upon sentence on November 14, 2013. Williams did not seek to withdraw his plea at any point before final judgment entered. Williams did not object to any portion of the operative PSR that was prepared for the sentencing hearing. Nov. 14, 2013 Minute Entry.

Williams alleges in his pro se motion that five days before the change of plea hearing, his lawyer "informed [Williams] that the prosecutor ha[d] p[roposed] a plea agreement . . . . [Whereby the prosecutor] would dismiss two counts of carrying a firearm in relation to a crime for a plea of guilt[y]." Pro Se Mot. IV, ECF No. 1 at 17. Williams further states that on the morning of the change of plea hearing his attorney informed Williams of the content of Judge McCuskey's email quoted above, and that information caused Williams to feel that "he wasn't going to get a fair trial and that the judge wasn't going to call the trial down the middle." Id. at V, ECF No. 1 at 18. As a consequence, Williams alleges that his guilty plea was not voluntary. Id. (asserting actual innocence and claiming he "took the plea [in]voluntar[il]y4 because of the threats of the judge and court taking his life").

Williams's amended (counseled) motion asserts two bases for relief. First, that his plea was not entered voluntarily and therefore did not provide him due process. Second, that his trial attorney's performance was constitutionally defective because the attorney failed to seek the

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district judge's recusal and that failure caused Williams to plead guilty. As explained below, the second argument overlaps logically with the first. Williams's amended motion and also his reply brief contend that the collateral attack waiver contained in the plea agreement is not enforceable because it was the result of an invalid plea or the result of ineffective assistance of counsel or both.

The government, notwithstanding Department of Justice policy that would perhaps suggest a different litigation tactic, see Mot. Ex. B, ECF No. 14-2 (memorandum from Deputy Attorney General to all federal prosecutors instructing that federal prosecutors should not seek to enforce collateral attack waivers related to ineffective assistance of trial counsel), first seeks to enforce Williams's collateral attack waiver as to all claims. According to the United States, "[t]he only claims that survive a [s]ection 2255 waiver are claims that (1) the waiver itself was not knowingly and voluntarily made; or (2) defense counsel provided ineffective assistance in connection with negotiating the waiver itself." Resp. 9. As part of its waiver arguments, the government contends that Williams's plea was not coerced and was not the product of ineffective assistance of counsel. The government finally adds that Williams's claims are procedurally defaulted.


Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11 governs plea agreements. In relevant part, Rule 11 states that "[a]n attorney for the government and the defendant's attorney . . . may discuss and reach a plea agreement," but that "[t]he court must not participate in these discussions." Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1). "Excluding the judge from the plea discussions . . . serves three purposes: it minimizes the risk that the defendant will be judicially coerced into pleading guilty, it preserves the impartiality of the court, and it avoids any appearance of impropriety." United States v.

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Kraus, 137 F.3d 447, 452 (7th Cir. 1998); see also United States v. Davila, 133 S. Ct. 2139, 2146 (2013) ("[Rule 11(c)(1)'s] prohibition [on judicial involvement in plea discussions] was included out of concern that a defendant might be induced to plead guilty rather than risk displeasing the judge who would preside at trial."); United States v. Bradley, 455 F.3d 453, 460-61 (4th Cir. 2006); Fed. R. Crim. P. 11 advisory comm. note (1974 amendment). The sentencing court must ultimately evaluate any Rule 11(c)(1)(C) agreement to ensure the proposed sentence is a just one, but its "authority to comment is confined to an agreement that the parties have themselves finalized and that has been properly put before the court for approval pursuant to the rule." Kraus, 137 F.3d at 453.

The following version of the facts is not in dispute: the prosecutor and...

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