United States District Court, E.D. New York
VICTOR WRIGHT, pro se, MDC Brooklyn, Brooklyn, NY, for the Petitioner.
LORETTA LYNCH, United States Attorney, Eastern District of New York, By: CAROLYN POKORNY, ESQ., Assistant United States Attorney, Brooklyn, NY, for the Respondent.
MEMORANDUM AND ORDER
FREDERIC BLOCK, Senior District Judge.
Petitioner Victor Wright ("Wright"), proceeding pro se, seeks to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. For the reasons that follow, his petition is denied.
Following a jury trial, Wright was convicted of conspiracy to distribute heroin and cocaine, possession of heroin with intent to distribute, and engaging in monetary transactions in criminally derived property worth more than $10, 000. On June 4, 2008, the Court sentenced him principally to two concurrent mandatory terms of life imprisonment. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal. See United States v. Wright, 341 F.Appx. 709 (2d Cir. 2009), cert. denied, 558 U.S. 1101 (2009).
In his § 2255 petition, Wright contends that he received ineffective assistance of counsel from three different attorneys who represented him during various stages of his criminal case. First, Wright claims that he received ineffective assistance from attorneys Neil Checkman ("Checkman") and Harry Batchelder ("Batchelder") during plea negotiations prior to trial. Second, he claims that Batchelder failed to conduct a necessary pre-trial investigation and made various errors during the trial itself. Finally, he claims that James Neuman ("Neuman"), his appellate counsel, failed to raise on appeal errors made by the Court during plea negotiations.
To prevail, Wright must show "(1) that his attorney's performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness, and (2) that as a result he suffered prejudice." United States v. Jones, 482 F.3d 60, 76 (2d Cir. 2006) (citing Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984)). "A reviewing court must indulge a strong presumption that counsel's [performance] falls within the wide range of reasonably professional assistance." United States v. Gaskin, 364 F.3d 438, 468 (2d Cir. 2004). Prejudice is shown only if "there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional error, the outcome of the proceeding would have been different." Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 534 (2003).
A. Pre-Trial Plea Negotiations
Wright first claims that Checkman "advised [him] not to accept a 10 year plea offer... and instead tried to persuade [him] to accept a 20 year plea offer." See Wright Petition at 14. Wright further claims that Checkman refused to inform the government that he had accepted the 10-year deal.
Wright's claims are refuted by the record. In January 2005, a federal grand jury indicted Wright on racketeering, homicide, drug trafficking, drug possession, and money laundering charges. On April 14, 2006, the government moved to dismiss the racketeering and homicide charges on the grounds that "[p]roceeding with the... charges at this time would jeopardize an important investigation in another district and endanger witnesses for that case." See Letter Motion to Dismiss Certain Charges of the Indictment (April 14, 2006) at 2. On April 19, 2006, the Court granted the motion without prejudice to the government's right to re-file at a later date, and the government filed a superseding indictment on April 21, 2006, that contained only the remaining drug-related charges. The Court subsequently held three hearings during which Wright's plea negotiations were discussed extensively.
At the first hearing, on April 24, 2006, the government explained that it had offered Wright two plea deals. The first offer was for 10 years, but covered only the drug-related charges in the superseding indictment. The second was for 20 years, and covered both the pending charges in the superseding indictment and the contemplated re-indictment of the racketeering and homicide charges. Checkman confirmed that he had counseled Wright to reject the 10-year offer but accept the 20-year deal, stating that "[t]he longer plea offer... [w]ould have left the defendant in position to have resolved all of his charges" but "[t]he ten year does not do that." See Transcript of April 24, 2006 Hearing at 8:21-9:3. When the government indicated that it might be willing to offer Wright a deal for 18 ½ years, the Court recessed the hearing to permit Checkman to discuss the offer with Wright. After the recess, the Court asked Wright whether he understood the plea offers, and Wright replied "Yes, I do." See id. at 23:17. The Court then adjourned the hearing to permit the government to obtain the necessary approval for the new plea offer.
At the second hearing, on April 27, 2006, the government notified the Court that it had obtained approval for the 18 ½ year plea offer. However, Checkman stated that Wright had concerns about the "coverage" of the new plea offer. See Transcript of April 27, 2006 Hearing at 7:18-25. When questioned by the Court, Wright revealed that he would be unable to plead to the conspiracy count because "Mr. Checkman explained to me that [pleading to conspiracy with others] would include everyone that's on the indictment. That would be a lie. I would have to perjure myself in order to plead guilty to that." See id. at 6:1-2. After the Court explained that Wright was not required to name particular co-conspirators but was only required to allocute to conspiracy with others, Wright stated, "[t]hen I have to go trial." See id. at 9:9. The Court asked whether Wright was "really clear-headed" about rejecting the plea. See id. at 9:13-14. After further colloquy, Wright stated that he had "no choice but to accept the plea. For the ...