Decker v. USA

Filing 3

ORDER - Defendant's motion for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 (ECF No. 163 filed in Case 3:13-cr-53) is hereby DENIED. The court further denies a certificate of appealability. Signed by Judge Howard D. McKibben on 10/26/2017. (Copies have been distributed pursuant to the NEF - DRM)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 13 DISTRICT OF NEVADA 14 15 16 17 18 19 UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, ) ) Plaintiff, ) ) vs. ) ) LESTER ROGER DECKER, ) ) Defendant. ) _________________________________ ) 3:13-cr-00053-HDM-WGC 3:17-cv-00006-HDM ORDER 20 Defendant Lester Roger Decker (“Decker”) has filed a motion to 21 vacate, set aside, or correct sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 22 (ECF No. 163). The government has responded (ECF No. 167), and 23 Decker has replied (ECF No. 173). On September 5, 2017, pursuant 24 to court order, the government submitted the affidavits and 25 declarations of Decker’s prior attorneys Julie Cavanaugh-Bill, John 26 Neil Stephenson, and Karena K. Dunn. 27 responded (ECF No. 177). 28 1 (ECF No. 175). Decker has 1 On April 15, 2013, a criminal complaint was filed alleging 2 that Decker had violated 18 U.S.C. §§ 2241(a), 1151 and 1153 by 3 using force to engage in a sexual act with an unwilling victim. 4 (ECF No. 1). 5 counsel John Neil Stephenson the following day. 6 the time, Stephenson was employed by Cavanaugh-Bill Law Offices 7 with Julie Cavanaugh-Bill, who also appeared on Decker’s behalf. 8 (See ECF No. 7). 9 indictment charging Decker with engaging in and attempting to Decker made his initial appearance with retained (ECF No. 2). At On May 1, 2013, the grand jury returned an 10 engage in aggravated sexual abuse in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 11 2241(a), 1151 and 1153. 12 (ECF No. 13). On June 7, 2013, the government offered Decker a plea 13 agreement that would have allowed Decker to plead guilty to abusive 14 sexual contact in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2244(a). 15 (Cavanaugh-Bill Aff. Ex. A); ECF No. 175-2 (Stephenson Decl. ¶ 4 & 16 Ex. 1)). 17 wife, describing it as a “very, very good plea bargain deal” and 18 thereafter met with Decker to discuss it. 19 (Stephenson Decl. ¶ 5)). Decker rejected the plea. 20 (ECF No. 175-1 Stephenson emailed the proposed agreement to Decker’s (ECF No. 175-2 (ECF No. 177). In July 2013, Stephenson left Cavanaugh-Bill’s law firm and 21 was removed from the case. 22 Decl. ¶ 7)). 23 appearance on Decker’s behalf as co-counsel with Cavanaugh-Bill. 24 (ECF No. 31). 25 Decker with a plea offer substantially similar to the one he had 26 already rejected. 27 decided to accept the offer, and a change of plea hearing was 28 scheduled for September 25, 2013. (ECF No. 30; ECF No. 175-2 (Stephenson A few days later, attorney Martin Wiener entered an Sometime later, Cavanaugh-Bill and Wiener presented (ECF No. 177). In mid-August 2013, Decker (ECF No. 39; ECF No. 175-1 2 1 (Cavanaugh-Bill Aff. ¶ 6)). 2 Decker decided he did not want to plead and told Cavanaugh-Bill and 3 Wiener that he no longer wanted them representing him and that he 4 would be retaining Stephenson as counsel. 5 (Cavanaugh-Bill Aff. ¶ 6)). 6 motions to withdraw, which the court approved, and on September 19, 7 2013, Stephenson re-appeared on Decker’s behalf. 8 51, 52 & 55). 9 an appearance on Decker’s behalf. Shortly before the hearing, however, (ECF No. 175-1 Cavanaugh-Bill and Wiener filed (ECF Nos. 43, 48, On September 25, 2013, Karena K. Dunn also entered (ECF No. 57). Pursuant to 10 defense counsel’s request, trial was continued to December 16, 11 2013. 12 (ECF Nos. 55 & 58). On November 18, 2013, Decker filed a motion to suppress 13 statements he made to agents William Coochyouma and David Elkington 14 on April 16, 2013, allegedly in violation of Miranda. 15 62). 16 sexual contact with the victim. 17 31); ECF No. 68-1). 18 2013, Decker testified that before he made these admissions the 19 agents had told him his statements would be “off the record.” 20 No. 123 (Tr. Evid. Hr’g 19)). 21 Decker his statements would be “off the record,” Elkington admitted 22 that after Decker invoked his right to an attorney, Elkington 23 asked: “Before we go, do you have anything you want to talk about?” 24 (ECF No. Specifically, Decker admitted to striking and engaging in (ECF No. 123 (Tr. Evid. Hr’g 30- At an evidentiary hearing on November 26, (ECF Although the agents denied telling (Id. at 8; ECF No. 97 at 11, 17-18)). Decker’s incriminatory 25 statements then followed. 26 functional equivalent of interrogation, the court granted Decker’s 27 motion and precluded the government’s use of Decker’s statements 28 during its case in chief. Finding Elkington’s question the (ECF No. 96). 3 The court noted, however, 1 that it was not ruling as to whether the statements could come in 2 for other purposes during trial. (ECF No. 151 (Trial Tr. 2-6)). 3 On December 11, 2013, the government submitted proposed jury 4 instructions, which included separate instructions for aggravated 5 sexual abuse and attempted aggravated sexual abuse. 6 Trial commenced on December 16, 2013. (ECF No. 88). On December 17, 2013, 7 the court discussed with counsel, in Decker’s presence, how to 8 instruct the jury with respect to the attempt charge and what type 9 of verdict forms to use. (ECF No. 152 (Trial Tr. 354-58)). The 10 next morning, counsel advised the court that Decker did not wish to 11 testify, and the court canvassed Decker about that decision. 12 No. 153 (Trial Tr. 432-34)). 13 judgment of acquittal on the attempt charge, arguing that the 14 evidence was insufficient to support such a conviction. 15 No. 104). 16 (See ECF No. 105). 17 guilty of attempted aggravated sexual abuse but not guilty of 18 aggravated sexual abuse. 19 (ECF Decker also filed a motion for (See ECF The court denied the motion before instructing the jury. On December 19, 2013, the jury found Decker (See ECF Nos. 114-17). Following trial, counsel filed a second motion for acquittal 20 on the attempt conviction, which the court denied. 21 122). 22 counsel represented that they were not reasonably on notice of the 23 attempt charge before trial. 24 counsel asserted in the motion that it was not clear Decker “would 25 be prosecuted on the attempt charge until the very end of trial.” 26 (Id. at 7). (ECF Nos. 119 & In a motion for reconsideration of the court’s order, (See ECF No. 130 at 2-3). In fact, 27 Prior to sentencing, the government moved for a two-level 28 enhancement for obstruction of justice, arguing that Decker lied at 4 1 the November 26, 2013, evidentiary hearing when, among other 2 things, he testified that the agents told him his statements would 3 be “off the record.” 4 government’s motion, arguing that the court had not found Decker 5 had perjured himself. 6 2014, the court found that Decker testified falsely when he said 7 that the agents told him the conversation would be “off the record” 8 and concluded the two-level obstruction enhancement should 9 therefore apply. (ECF No. 125). (ECF No. 126). Defense counsel opposed the At sentencing on March 19, (ECF No. 150 (Sent. Tr. 27-32)). The court 10 accordingly sentenced Decker to a period of 190 months. 11 of conviction was entered on March 21, 2014. 12 Judgment (ECF No. 144). Decker appealed the conviction, and the Ninth Circuit 13 affirmed. 14 writ of certiorari, which the Supreme Court denied on January 11, 15 2016. 16 instant verified petition to vacate, set aside, or correct sentence 17 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. 18 (ECF Nos. 146 & 157). (ECF Nos. 161 & 162). Decker then filed a petition for On January 3, 2017, Decker filed the (ECF Nos. 163 & 164). Pursuant to § 2255, a federal inmate may move to vacate, set 19 aside, or correct his sentence if: (1) the sentence was imposed in 20 violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States; (2) the 21 court was without jurisdiction to impose the sentence; (3) the 22 sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law; or (4) the 23 sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack. 24 Decker advances six grounds for relief in his petition, all of 25 which allege ineffective assistance of counsel. 26 Id. § 2255. Ineffective assistance of counsel is a cognizable claim under 27 § 2255. 28 1982). Baumann v. United States, 692 F.2d 565, 581 (9th Cir. In order to prevail on a such a claim, the defendant must 5 1 meet a two-prong test. 2 (1984). 3 performance fell below an objective standard of reasonableness. 4 Id. at 687-88. 5 deferential and there is a strong presumption that counsel’s 6 conduct fell within the wide range of reasonable representation.” 7 United States v. Ferreira-Alameda, 815 F.2d 1251, 1253 (9th Cir. 8 1986). 9 performance prejudiced his defense. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 First, the defendant must show that his counsel’s “Review of counsel’s performance is highly Second, the defendant must show that the deficient Strickland, 466 U.S. at 687. 10 This requires showing that “there is a reasonable probability that, 11 but for counsel’s unprofessional errors, the result of the 12 proceeding would have been different. 13 a probability sufficient to undermine confidence in the outcome.” 14 Id. at 694. 15 I. 16 A reasonable probability is Ground One In his first ground for relief, Decker asserts that Cavanaugh- 17 Bill had represented one of the government’s trial witnesses – 18 Cecilia Baldazo – in an unrelated case. 19 conflict prevented Cavanaugh-Bill and Stephenson from vigorously 20 defending Decker by pursuing evidence to impeach Baldazo and 21 prevented Stephenson from effectively representing Decker at trial 22 because Stephenson could not cross-examine Baldazo. 23 Decker asserts that this “Effective assistance of counsel ‘includes a right to 24 conflict-free counsel.’” 25 859-60 (9th Cir. 2001), amended 2001 WL 474147 (9th Cir. 2001). 26 “To establish a Sixth Amendment violation of defendant’s right to 27 the effective assistance of counsel based on an attorney’s conflict 28 of interest, ‘a defendant must show: (1) his attorney actively United States v. Baker, 256 F.3d 855, 6 1 represented conflicting interests, and (2) an actual conflict of 2 interest affected his attorney’s performance.’” 3 States, 33 F.3d 1133, 1135 (9th Cir. 1994). 4 this right. 5 Quintero v. United A defendant may waive Holloway v. Arkansas, 435 U.S. 475, 483 n.5 (1978). First, Decker identifies no impeachment evidence that should 6 have been uncovered beyond the fact that Baldazo had been fired 7 from previous employment for untruthfulness. 8 that this information was known to Decker’s attorneys before 9 Baldazo was called to the stand. (ECF No. 151 (Trial Tr. 51)). The record is clear 10 More importantly, however, Decker has not demonstrated that there 11 was a need to impeach Baldazo. 12 – defense counsel did. 13 substantively, the only information defense counsel elicited from 14 Baldazo was information that counsel wanted before the jury to cast 15 doubt on the victim’s testimony. 16 631)). 17 prejudice. 18 The government did not call Baldazo (See ECF No. 153 (Trial Tr. 472-77)). And (See ECF No. 154 (Trial Tr. Decker therefore has not established and cannot establish Second, the conflict was disclosed to the court in Decker’s 19 presence at trial, and the parties explained that to cure the 20 conflict, co-counsel Dunn would cross-examine Baldazo. 21 151 (Trial Tr. 49-54)). 22 the issue, Decker indicated that he was aware of the conflict and 23 the proposed procedure for handling it and that he had no 24 objection. 25 voluntarily waived his right to conflict-free counsel. 26 Decker was not advised of the conflict in advance, as he claims 27 (see ECF No. 177), and even if that renders his waiver involuntary 28 or unknowing, Decker’s claim is still without merit. Decker has not (Id. at 54). (ECF No. After the court and the parties discussed Decker therefore knowingly and 7 Even if 1 established any prejudice from the alleged conflict. 2 Decker is not entitled to relief on ground one of his motion. 3 II. 4 Accordingly, Ground Two In his second ground for relief, Decker asserts that 5 Cavanaugh-Bill and Wiener were ineffective because they did not 6 tell him he could have entered an Alford plea, which would have 7 allowed him to plead guilty while maintaining his innocence. 8 Decker asserts that he would have entered an Alford plea instead of 9 going to trial. 10 Cavanaugh-Bill believes that during negotiations she asked the 11 government about the availability of an Alford or “no-contest” plea 12 and was told that the U.S. Attorney’s Office in this district does 13 not accept such pleas. 14 The government and Stephenson corroborate that the U.S. Attorney’s 15 in this district rarely, if ever, allows Alford pleas. 16 offered no evidence to contradict these representations and no 17 evidence to rebut the government’s assertion that it would not have 18 allowed Decker to enter an Alford plea in this case. 19 Decker argues that had counsel approached the government requesting 20 an Alford plea or discussed Alford pleas with Decker, “counsel may 21 have been able to get the government to agree to accept a plea in 22 which Decker did not have to admit his guilt,” there is no evidence 23 or reasonable probability that discussions about an Alford plea 24 would have changed the results of negotiations in this case. 25 Because Alford pleas are so rarely allowed by the government in 26 this district it did not fall below the reasonable standard of 27 representation for counsel to fail to discuss this option with 28 Decker. (ECF No. 175-1 (Cavanaugh-Bill Aff. ¶ 5)). Decker has Although Likewise, because such pleas are rarely allowed and would 8 1 not have been allowed in this case, Decker cannot show prejudice. 2 Accordingly, Decker is not entitled to relief on ground two of his 3 motion. 4 III. Ground Three 5 In his third ground for relief, Decker asserts that Stephenson 6 was ineffective because he expressed a desire to take the case to 7 trial and never discussed the perils of doing so with Decker.1 8 Stephenson avers that when the government offered Decker the plea 9 deal, Stephenson conveyed the deal to Decker, through his wife, and 10 described it as a “very, very good plea bargain deal.” 11 175-2 (Stephenson Decl. 2)). 12 Decker re-retained him in September 2013, Decker was “adamant that 13 he would not take the aforesaid plea offer under any 14 circumstances.”2 15 “spoke, in person, with Mr. Decker for countless hours about the 16 nature of the charges against him, and the potential risks/rewards 17 of going to trial.” 18 to reject the plea offer and asked Stephenson to take him to trial. 19 (Id.) 20 Stephenson further states that when (Id. at 3). (Id.) (ECF No. Stephenson further states that he Decker knew all of this when he decided Even in his response to his former attorneys’ affidavits, 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 1 Decker also argues Stephenson was ineffective for failing to advise him that he could enter an Alford plea. For the reasons discussed supra § II, Decker has not established ineffective assistance of counsel on these grounds. 2 Stephenson also states that Decker said that if “he pled to a felony sex offense, he would lose his high-paying job with a prestigious mining company, would not be eligible for meaningful employment in the future, and his wife would leave him. Such a result was unacceptable in Mr. Decker’s mind and tantamount to a life sentence.” (Id. at 3). However, Decker denies telling Stephenson any of this. The court need not and therefore does not rely on these disputed statements in addressing Decker’s third ground for relief. 9 1 Decker does not deny that Stephenson discussed the perils of trial 2 with him and that it was Decker, not Stephenson, who was insistent 3 that the case proceed to trial. 4 that Stephenson’s performance was deficient in this respect or that 5 Decker pleaded guilty due to Stephenson’s alleged deficient advice. 6 Decker is therefore not entitled to relief on his third ground. 7 IV. 8 Accordingly, Decker has not shown Ground Four In his fourth ground for relief, Decker asserts that 9 Stephenson and Dunn did not tell him he could be found guilty of 10 attempted aggravated sexual abuse and so he believed he could be 11 found guilty only of aggravated sexual abuse. 12 testify at trial but asserts that if he had known he could be found 13 guilty of attempted aggravated sexual abuse, he would have 14 testified. 15 reasonable probability that the outcome of the proceedings would 16 have been different. 17 Decker chose not to Decker posits that if he had done so, there is a For two reasons, Decker cannot show prejudice. First, even 18 assuming counsel did not discuss the possibility of an attempt 19 conviction until the “eve of trial” (ECF No. 177), Decker knew it 20 was a possibility before he made his decision not to testify. 21 ECF No. 152 (Trial Tr. 354-58); ECF No. 153 (Trial Tr. 432-34)). 22 Decker’s assertion that he would have testified had he known he 23 could be convicted of attempt is therefore not credible. 24 even if Decker had testified, there is no reasonable probability 25 that the outcome of the proceedings would have been any different. 26 Decker had told agents Elkington and Coochyouma that he struck the 27 victim and engaged in sexual contact with her. 28 Evid. Hr’g 30-31); ECF No. 68-1). 10 (See Second, (ECF No. 123 (Tr. These statements – which had 1 been suppressed for the government’s case-in-chief would likely 2 have been admitted had Decker testified. 3 have heard Decker’s admission that he had sexual contact with the 4 victim. Decker has failed to show that he is entitled to relief on 5 ground four of his motion. 6 V. 7 Therefore, the jury would Ground Five In his fifth ground for relief, Decker asserts Stephenson and 8 Dunn were ineffective for failing to take “any steps to correct the 9 record as to the true meaning of” the statements he made at his 10 suppression hearing which the court found to be false and failing 11 to “establish that Mr. Decker did not testify falsely.” 12 163 (Mot. 7)). 13 correct the record, he would not have received the two-level 14 enhancement for obstruction of justice. 15 (ECF No. Decker asserts that if counsel had taken steps to Decker’s counsel did object to the enhancement at sentencing. 16 Decker does not explain what the “true meaning” of his statements 17 was or how any other steps by counsel would have changed the 18 court’s conclusion that Decker had testified falsely on the stand. 19 Moreover, Decker concedes in his reply that he cannot show 20 prejudice on this count and therefore is not entitled to relief. 21 Decker has failed to establish that his counsel’s performance 22 in this regard fell below a reasonable standard of representation 23 and has not shown any prejudice. 24 entitled to relief on ground five of his motion. 25 VI. Accordingly, Decker is not Ground Six 26 In his sixth ground for relief, Decker asserts that his 27 appellate counsel was ineffective for failing to argue that trial 28 should have been continued when, three days prior to trial, the 11 1 government provided new discovery to defense counsel. 2 Decker cannot show prejudice. The newly produced evidence was 3 related primarily to the chain of custody of some evidence in the 4 case. 5 granted the parties a brief continuance before opening arguments so 6 counsel could review the new evidence. 7 that this time was insufficient or that counsel’s attention to the 8 issue detracted from their preparation of his case in other 9 respects. (See ECF No. 175-2 (Stephenson Decl. ¶ 16)). (Id.) The court Decker has not shown In fact, Stephenson states that he does not believe 10 Decker suffered any prejudice as a result of the discovery issue. 11 (Id.) 12 continuance is reviewed under an abuse of discretion standard. 13 United States v. Garrett, 179 F.3d 1143, 1144-45 (9th Cir. 1999). 14 It is therefore extremely unlikely this argument would have 15 prevailed on appeal. 16 argument therefore did not amount to ineffective assistance. 17 Sexton v. Cozner, 679 F.3d 1150, 1157 (9th Cir. 2012). 18 Accordingly, Decker is not entitled to relief on ground six of his 19 motion. 20 Evidentiary Hearing 21 Moreover, the court’s decision to grant or deny a Appellate counsel’s failure to raise this See The court finds that “the motion and the files and records of 22 the case conclusively show that [Decker] is entitled to no relief.” 23 See U.S.C. § 2255(b). 24 for an evidentiary hearing. 25 Certificate of Appealability 26 The court therefore denies Decker’s request In order to proceed with an appeal, Decker must receive a 27 certificate of appealability. 28 P. 22; 9th Cir. R. 22-1; Allen v. Ornoski, 435 F.3d 946, 950-951 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1); Fed. R. App. 12 1 (9th Cir. 2006); see also United States v. Mikels, 236 F.3d 550, 2 551-52 (9th Cir. 2001). 3 substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right” to 4 warrant a certificate of appealability. 5 Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 483-84 (2000). 6 must demonstrate that reasonable jurists would find the district 7 court’s assessment of the constitutional claims debatable or 8 wrong.” 9 In order to meet this threshold inquiry, the defendant has the Generally, a defendant must make “a 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2); “The petitioner Allen, 435 F.3d at 951 (quoting Slack, 529 U.S. at 484). 10 burden of demonstrating that the issues are debatable among jurists 11 of reason; that a court could resolve the issues differently; or 12 that the questions are adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed 13 further. 14 with respect to whether they satisfy the standard for issuance of a 15 certificate of appealability and determines that none meets that 16 standard. 17 appealability. 18 Conclusion 19 Id. The court has considered the issues raised by Decker The court therefore denies Decker a certificate of Accordingly, Decker’s motion for relief under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 20 (ECF No. 163) is hereby DENIED. 21 certificate of appealability. The court further denies a 22 IT IS SO ORDERED. 23 DATED: This 26th day of October, 2017. 24 25 ____________________________ UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE 26 27 28 13

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