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Johnson v. United States

February 27, 2006

LAWRENCE JOHNSON, PETITIONER,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, RESPONDENT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John Gleeson, United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

BACKGROUND

Petitioner Lawrence Johnson was convicted after trial of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute narcotics, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846; conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute narcotics within 1,000 feet of a public elementary school, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846 and 860; and unlicensed dealing in firearms, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(a)(1)(A). Johnson was sentenced on May 11, 2000 to life imprisonment, five years supervised release and special assessments of $300. The convictions and sentence were affirmed in United States v. Flaharty, 295 F.3d 182 (2d Cir. 2002), familiarity with which is assumed.

Though the case was tried more than a year before Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), was decided, special interrogatories were nevertheless submitted to the jury, which found beyond a reasonable doubt that both conspiracy convictions involved more than 50 grams of crack cocaine. See id. at 195. Johnson seeks to vacate, set aside or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. He argues that his trial attorney, Scott Brettschneider, Esq., and his appellate attorney, Bobbi Sternheim, Esq., rendered ineffective assistance of counsel.

For the reasons discussed below, the petition is denied.

DISCUSSION

A. The Applicable Legal Principles

The Supreme Court has established the following standard for ineffective assistance claims:

First, the defendant must show that counsel's performance was deficient. This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the "counsel" guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment. Second, the defendant must show that the deficient performance prejudiced the defense. This requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable. Unless a defendant makes both showings, it cannot be said that the conviction . . . resulted from a breakdown in the adversary process that renders the result unreliable.

Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984). Thus, to make out this type of claim, the petitioner must demonstrate both (1) that his attorney's performance "fell below an objective standard of reasonableness," id. at 688, and (2) that "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different," id. at 694. In assessing the reasonableness of counsel's performance, judicial scrutiny "must be highly deferential," and the court must "indulge a strong presumption that counsel's conduct falls within the wide range of reasonable professional assistance; that is, the defendant must overcome the presumption that, under the circumstances, the challenged action might be considered sound trial strategy." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689 (internal quotation marks omitted); Jackson v. Leonardo, 162 F.3d 81, 85 (2d Cir. 1998); see also Yarborough v. Gentry, 540 U.S. 1, 5-6 (2003) (per curiam) ("[C]counsel has wide latitude in deciding how best to represent a client . . . .").

In assessing counsel's performance, I "must conduct an objective review . . . measured for 'reasonableness under prevailing professional norms,' which includes a context-dependent consideration of the challenged conduct as seen 'from counsel's perspective at the time.'" Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 523 (2003) (citations omitted) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688-89)). The Supreme Court has "declined to articulate specific guidelines for appropriate attorney conduct" and has instead emphasized that "'the proper measure of attorney performance remains simply reasonableness under prevailing professional norms.'" Id. at 521 (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 688).

To establish the requisite effect of counsel's performance on the outcome of the proceeding, it is not sufficient if the petitioner shows merely that counsel's errors had "some conceivable effect" on the outcome. Strickland, 466 U.S. at 693. Rather, there must be "a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. at 694. A "reasonable probability" is "a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome." Id. This determination, unlike the determination whether counsel's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, may be made with the benefit of hindsight. See Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U.S. 364, 372 (1993).

Although the Supreme Court formulated the Strickland test in the context of examining a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, the same test applies to claims regarding the performance of appellate counsel. See Mayo v. Henderson, 13 F.3d 528, 533 (2d Cir. 1994); Claudio v. Scully, 982 F.2d 798, 803 (2d Cir. 1992). Appellate counsel need not present every non-frivolous argument that could be made. See Mayo, 13 F.3d at 533 (citing Jones v. Barnes, 463 U.S. 745, 754 (1983)); see also Evitts v. Lucey, 469 U.S. 387, 394 (1985) (emphasizing that appellate counsel "need not advance every argument, regardless of merit, urged by the appellant"). Moreover, reviewing courts should not employ hindsight to second-guess an appellate attorney's strategy choices. See Mayo, 13 F.3d at 533 (citing Lockhart v. Fretwell, 506 U.S. 364, 372 (1993)). A petitioner, however, may establish constitutionally inadequate performance if he shows that his appellate counsel omitted material and obvious issues ...


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