Simons v. United States of America, The
MEMORANDUM OPINION as more fully set out in order. Signed by Judge C Lynwood Smith, Jr on 3/31/2015. (AHI)
2015 Mar-31 PM 03:48
U.S. DISTRICT COURT
N.D. OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
NORTHERN DISTRICT OF ALABAMA
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
JOHN LAWSON SIMONS,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
JOHN LAWSON SIMONS,
After conducting an evidentiary hearing, the magistrate judge filed his report
and recommendation on January 6, 2015, recommending that the motion pursuant to
28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate the sentences in these companion cases be denied.
Through counsel, movant filed his timely objections on January 20, 2015. Having
now carefully reviewed and considered de novo the report and recommendation, the
objections, the testimony from the evidentiary hearing, and other matters in the court
record, the court finds that the objections are due to be OVERRULED, and the report
and recommendation ADOPTED and ACCEPTED.
Movant was charged in two distinct and separate cases with multiple counts of
possession of child pornography, traveling in interstate commerce to have sex with
a minor, and transporting a minor across state lines for purposes of having sex.
Factually, defendant traveled to Ohio and Florida on multiple occasions to have oral,
anal, and vaginal intercourse with at least two minor female victims, which on
occasion he recorded on video. He also transported a third minor female victim
between Alabama and Tennessee on five separate occasions, during which he
engaged in sexual intercourse with her. Over the course of a decade, movant
victimized minor females, meticulously recording the details of each crime in a diary
he kept. The magistrate judge correctly described movant’s crimes this way:
In this case, the movant sought out vulnerable young girls, some as
young as 12 years old, enticed them into “egregious and despicable”
acts, which he videotaped and cataloged ad nauseum in diaries he kept
for almost a decade. His diaries record the graphic details of rape and
anal and oral sodomy of multiple young girls. He continued to rape
children and to produce pornographic videotapes of the encounters for
years after his mother’s house was searched and he was caught with
pornographic materials. Not only did he know that his actions were
criminal, he boasted in his diaries about which crimes he had committed
and how many times he had committed them.
(Report and Recommendation, Doc. 17, pp. 8-9). As mentioned, even after the search
of his mother’s home and the discovery of his caches of pornographic evidence,
movant continued to engage in criminal victimization of minor girls, resulting in the
second indictment against him.
Movant, with the financial assistance of his mother, retained attorney Paul
Marc Sandlin to represent him. While represented by Sandlin, movant pleaded guilty
to all counts in both indictments. Thereafter, Sandlin withdrew from representation
of movant to pursue employment in the Madison County District Attorney’s Office.
He asked attorney Marcus Helstowski to represent the movant as a favor to Sandlin,
and Helstowski agreed. He was never paid for his services.
Helstowski represented movant at sentencing. He played no role in movant’s
decision to plead guilty to the indictments. Whether pleading guilty was an
intelligent decision was not an issue before the magistrate judge, as petitioner has not
challenged the free, informed, and voluntary nature of his guilty plea. The only three
claims for relief alleged in this § 2255 motion are: (1) whether Helstowski provided
ineffective assistance of counsel at sentencing by failing to object to movant’s
sentence of life without the possibility of parole as being “substantively
unreasonable,” (2) whether Sandlin provided ineffective assistance by failing to file
a motion to suppress evidence seized from movant’s home and computer pursuant to
a search warrant he contends was based on stale information, and (3) whether
Helstowski provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to appeal movant’s
sentence after being requested to do so by movant. The magistrate judge conducted
an evidentiary hearing on the last claim, finding that movant never requested that an
appeal be taken until well after the time for doing so had expired, and, in fact, that he
told counsel he had no intention of appealing the sentence of life without parole.
Upon de novo review of this matter, this court concludes that the magistrate
judge’s recommended disposition is correct. On his first claim, movant must prove
both elements of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-88 (1984), i.e., not
only that Helstowski’s failure to object to the life sentence as “substantively
unreasonable” was professionally unreasonable, but also that the failure prejudiced
movant. To show prejudice under Strickland, movant must prove that, but for
Helstowski’s failure to object, the outcome of the sentencing hearing would have
been different in the sense that movant would have received a lesser sentence. That
simply is not the case. First, the recommended Guidelines sentence was life in prison.
Moreover, the nature, breadth, and repeated manner in which movant’s offenses
occurred clearly marks his sentence as reasonable. There simply is no reasonable
chance that an objection by Helstowski would have changed the sentence imposed,
and, therefore, movant suffered no prejudice from the lack of an objection.
Movant’s second claim is that Sandlin committed ineffective assistance of
counsel by failing to file a motion to suppress the fruits of a search of movant’s home
conducted pursuant to a warrant. Movant seems to argue that not only was the
information used to obtain the warrant stale, but also that it simply was not enough
to establish probable cause to search. First, the magistrate judge examined the
warrant application and affidavit, and concluded that it did establish probable cause
for the warrant. But even if a challenge to the warrant could have been made,
Sandlin’s affidavit makes clear that movant did not want to drag out the proceedings
and expose his mother to the details of his crimes. In consultation with Sandlin, the
decision was made to plead, rather than fight the search. Such a knowing and
voluntary decision to plead (which movant has not challenged) amounted to both a
waiver of any defect in counsel’s failure to challenge the warrant,1 and a
professionally reasonable basis on which counsel could forgo the challenge to the
warrant. Furthermore, even if a motion to suppress had been filed and granted by the
court, it would not have involved any of the evidence underlying the most serious
charge against movant and on which he received the sentence of life. As the
magistrate judge noted, “The charge that resulted in the life sentence, Count Ten of
the second indictment, was based on conduct that occurred in June 2008, more than
two years after the search warrant was executed, and more than five years after the
A knowing and voluntary guilty plea waives all non-jurisdictional, pre-plea defects,
including ineffective assistance of counsel with respect to issues not implicating the voluntariness
of the plea. See Wilson v. United States, 962 F.2d 996, 997 (11th Cir.1992); Baird v. United States,
445 F. App’x 252, 254 (11th Cir. 2011).
conduct that gave rise to the first indictment.” (Report and Recommendation, Doc.
17, p.16 n.8). Thus, Sandlin’s failure to file a motion to suppress evidence from the
search changed nothing; movant still would have received the same life sentence
Finally, as to his claim that Helstowski failed to appeal after being instructed
to do so, the court has examined the magistrate judge’s proposed findings of fact and
finds no reason to disregard them. The magistrate judge heard the testimony of both
movant and Helstowski, and found that movant never instructed Helstowski to
appeal. Indeed, the magistrate judge found that movant informed Helstowski that he
had no intention of appealing. These findings are more than adequately supported by
the record of the evidentiary hearing, and the court finds no reason to disagree with
the proposed findings. The court is entitled to rely upon the credibility assessments
of the magistrate judge if they are supported by the record.2 Because movant declined
to appeal at the time of sentencing (and for three years thereafter), Helstowski’s
Indeed, the court is required to accept the credibility findings of the magistrate judge unless
the court conducts a new hearing to hear the testimony of the witnesses for itself. To reject the
credibility assessments of the magistrate judge without conducting a new hearing is an abuse of
discretion. Amlong & Amlong, P.A. v. Denny’s, Inc., 500 F.3d 1230, 1251 (11th Cir. 2007). “‘[T]o
adequately determine the credibility of a witness. . . the fact finder must observe the witness.’ This
requirement is satisfied ‘either by the district judge accepting the determination of the magistrate
after reading the record, or by rejecting the magistrate’s decision and coming to an independent
decision after hearing the testimony and viewing the witnesses.’” United States v. Powell, 628 F.3d
1254, 1256 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting Louis v. Blackburn, 630 F.2d 1105, 1109 (5th Cir.1980))
(alteration in original). In the instant case, the court accepts the credibility findings of the magistrate
judge, and there is no need for an additional hearing.
failure to perfect an appeal was not professionally unreasonable.
By separate Order the court will OVERRULE the objections of the movant,
ADOPT and ACCEPT the magistrate judge’s report and recommendation, and DENY
the § 2255 motions in these respective cases.
DONE this 31st day of March, 2015.
United States District Judge
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