Toki v. USA
MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER on 1 Motion to Vacate, Set Aside or Correct Sentence (2255). Signed by Judge Tena Campbell on 8/9/17 (alt)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF UTAH
ERIC KAMAHELE, KEPA
MAUMAU, SITAMIPA TOKI
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA,
ORDER AND MEMORANDUM
PETITIONERS’ MOTIONS FOR
RELIEF UNDER 28 U.S.C. § 2255
Case Nos. 2:15-cv-00506-TC
Judge Tena Campbell
A jury convicted Eric Kamahele, Kepa Maumau, and Sitamipa Toki
(collectively, Petitioners) of crimes arising out of their membership in the Tongan
Crip Gang (TCG). They appealed their convictions to the Tenth Circuit Court of
Appeals and lost. See United States v. Kamahele, 748 F.3d 984 (10th Cir. 984).
Petitioners have now filed motions under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Mr. Kamahele and
Mr. Maumau initially filed pro se § 2255 motions claiming ineffective assistance
of counsel. After receiving permission from the court, Mr. Kamahele and Mr.
Maumau, with the assistance of counsel, filed amended § 2255 motions. Mr.
Toki did not file a pro se motion, but has now, with counsel, filed a § 2255
Other than the claims raised by Mr. Kamahele and Mr. Maumau in their
pro se motions, the petitioners make essentially the same arguments in support of
(1) That the Supreme Court’s recent decision in United States v. Johnson
invalidates the risk-of-force clause in 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(B) and, consequently,
their § 924(c) convictions cannot stand; and
(2) That they are actually innocent of their convictions for committing
violent crimes in aid of racketeering (VICAR) and their gun charges, 18 U.S.C.
§ 924(c), because their underlying crimes do not qualify as crimes of violence.
The court denies Petitioners’ motions:
(1) The ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims asserted by Mr. Kamahele
and Mr. Maumau are without merit;
(2) Petitioners’ claims that Johnson invalidated their 924(c) convictions are
(3) Petitioners’ claims do not qualify for the actual-innocence exception
and, consequently, they are also barred.
To succeed on their claims of ineffective assistance of counsel, Mr.
Kamahele and Mr. Maumau must satisfy the two-part test set forth in Strickland
v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). Under the first prong, the petitioner must
show that his attorney’s representation fell below an objective standard of
reasonableness. Id. at 688. “Judicial scrutiny of counsel’s performance must be
highly deferential.” Id. at 689. As part of that deferential standard, the United
States Supreme Court has established “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.” Id. (emphasis added)
(citation and internal quotation marks omitted).
Second, the petitioner must establish that he was prejudiced by the
allegedly deficient representation.
Id. at 687, 693 (the petitioner must
“affirmatively prove prejudice”). “It is not enough for the defendant to show that
the errors had some conceivable effect on the outcome of the proceeding.” Id. at
693 (emphasis added). Instead, when a petitioner challenges a conviction, he
“must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel’s
professional errors, . . . the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt
respecting guilt.” Id. at 694–95. Underlying this standard is the requirement that
the court “consider the totality of the evidence before the judge or jury.” Id. at
The court may reverse the order in which it considers the factors, or it may
focus solely on one of the factors if the petitioner cannot establish that particular
[T]here is no reason for a court deciding an ineffective assistance
claim to approach the inquiry in the same order or even to address
both components of the inquiry if the defendant makes an
insufficient showing on one. In particular, a court need not
determine whether counsel’s performance was deficient before
examining the prejudice suffered by the defendant as a result of
the alleged deficiencies.
Id. at 697.
As discussed below, the court finds that neither Mr. Kamahele nor Mr.
Maumau has met his burden under Strickland.
Mr. Kamahele brings five claims in his Original Petition.1 Claim One and
Claim Two concern his motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Claims Three, Four,
and Five relate to two events that occurred at trial which he contends should have
triggered a motion for mistrial.
a. Withdrawal of Guilty Plea (Claims One and Two)
Eric Kamahele was indicted on five counts (conspiracy under RICO,
assault with a dangerous weapon in aid of racketeering, Hobbs Act robbery, and
two counts of brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence). He faced a
potential sentence of life in prison, including a set of minimum-mandatory
At the arraignment on the second superseding indictment on May
12, 2010, Kamahele was advised of his rights and of the possible
The Government incorrectly asserts that Mr. Kamahele’s petition was untimely
because the court did not receive the petition until July 16, 2015, nine days after
the July 7, 2015 deadline. The court, applying the prison-mailbox rule, finds that
Mr. Kamahele filed a timely petition. That rule deems timely a pro se prisoner’s
filing of a § 2255 petition when the prisoner gave the petition “to prison officials
for mailing prior to the filing deadline, regardless of when the court itself receives
the documents.” Price v. Philpot, 420 F.3d 1158, 1163-64 (10th Cir. 2005). Mr.
Kamahele mailed his pro se petition from prison on July 1, 2015 (see the
accompanying envelope), six days before the deadline expired.
penalties he faced if convicted. (Doc. 142.) There, both he and his
counsel were put on notice that he was facing a minimummandatory 32 years in prison if convicted.
(United States’ Response in Opp’n to Pet.’s Mot. to Vacate Under 28 U.S.C.
§ 2255 6 n.1, ECF No. 5 in 2:15-cv-506.)
A 30-day trial was scheduled to begin on September 6, 2011. But on
August 11, 2011, Mr. Kamahele pleaded guilty to two of the five counts for
which he was indicted. According to his plea agreement, he was to serve twelve
years in prison. The plea was conditional because it was entered under Federal
Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c)(1)(C), which requires acceptance by the district
court before it is final.
The next day, Mr. Kamahele “had a change of heart” after Co-Defendant
Mataika Tuai asked him to “withdraw [his] guilty plea and help [Mr. Mataika] at
trial.” (Aff. of Eric Kamahele ¶ 5, ECF No. 1-2 in 2:15-cv-506.) Mr. Kamahele
called his counsel’s office and told his counsel’s assistant that he wanted to
withdraw his guilty plea. Six days later, on August 18, 2011, his counsel filed a
motion with the court and represented what had occurred:
Mr. Kamahele contacted counsel’s office and indicated he needed to
withdraw the plea and that he would put the reasons for the motion
in writing and send it to counsel’s office. To date that letter has not
been received and due to the time constraints counsel was unable to
verify with Mr. Kamahele what issues he wanted to raise before the
(Def. Kamahele’s Mot. to Withdraw His Guilty Plea, ECF No. 778 in 2:08-cr758.) Counsel emphasized the need for an expedited hearing because the trial
was less than a month away. (Id. (“Therefore, despite the lack of articulated
facts, counsel seeks a hearing on the Motion in order to determine her client’s
status as to the trial.”).) The court held a hearing the next day.
Mr. Kamahele and his counsel met at the courthouse immediately before
the hearing. Mr. Kamahele, who was in custody during the pre-trial proceedings,
said that he “never spoke to [his] attorney [about the motion] until the day” of the
motion hearing. (Kamahele Aff. ¶ 6.) According to Mr. Kamahele, in response
to his decision to withdraw his plea, his attorney told him that he “was the
dumbest person she had ever met” and that the judge would not grant his request.
(Id. ¶ 7.) He now asserts that he “was not provided any advice by [his] attorney
at the plea withdrawal” hearing. (Id. ¶ 9.) But he did mention that his attorney
had reviewed sentence possibilities with him, no doubt before he entered into his
plea agreement. (Id. ¶ 8.) Still, he asserts that he asked his attorney “on multiple
occasions to help [him] understand the amount of time [he] was facing, and that
each time the number was different and [it] prevented [him] from grasping the
concept of federal mandatory minimum sentences.” (Id. ¶ 8.)
The transcript of the hearing on Mr. Kamahele’s motion completes the
picture of what occurred between Mr. Kamahele and his counsel. After the court
granted the motion, his counsel stated on the record that her client’s request “was
against legal advice.” (Tr. of Hr’g on Mot. Withdraw Guilty Plea 4, ECF No. 826
in 2:08-cr-758.) She continued her explanation:
Just because of the time he’s facing, my concerns about the evidence
at trial, that my recommendation is that he let the plea stand, and he
still wishes to have it withdrawn. Obviously the court has ruled. But
I wanted that [on the record.]
And then I wanted to make sure that he understood. He indicated
today that he thought I was mad and that it interfered with my
schedule. That isn’t the case at all. I was trying to pay attention to
what the Government was talking about regarding evidence. My
schedule is cleared for September. I did that in preparation of this.
There is nothing personal here. I have no personal feelings about the
client, what he wants to do, how he wants to proceed, other than to
protect his legal rights. So that is why I asked him not to withdraw
it. I just wanted that on the record.
(Id. at 4 (emphasis added).) The court told Mr. Kamahele that ultimately the
decision was his to make but added that “I don’t think [withdrawing the guilty
plea is] the wisest thing in the world.” (Id. at 3.)
Mr. Kamahele went to trial and the jury found him guilty of all five counts.
He was sentenced to 32 years in prison.2 He lost his appeal with the Tenth
Circuit. See United States v. Kamahele, 748 F.3d 984 (10th Cir. 2014).3
i. Attorney’s Advice Regarding Withdrawal of Guilty Plea
In Claim One, Mr. Kamahele contends that his attorney provided
ineffective assistance of counsel when she failed to provide him with meaningful
advice about whether to withdraw his guilty plea. “If a plea bargain has been
offered, a defendant has the right to effective assistance of counsel in considering
whether to accept it.”
Lafler v. Cooper, 566 U.S. 156, 168 (2012).
The court later re-sentenced Mr. Kamahele to 30 years after the United States
Supreme Court issued Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013). (See
Aug. 26, 2013 Order of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, ECF No. 1509 in
2:08-cr-758; Tr. of Sept. 18, 2013 Re-Sentencing, ECF No. 14 in 2:15-cv-506.)
Mr. Kamahele requested an evidentiary hearing on his claim that he received
ineffective assistance of counsel when he decided to withdraw his guilty plea
(Claim One). (See Am. Mot. to Vacate at 30 n.146, ECF No. 10 in 2:15-cv-506.)
The court may, in its discretion, hold an evidentiary hearing. See Rule 8(a) of the
Rules on Mot. Attacking Sentence Under § 2255. Having reviewed Mr.
Kamahele’s affidavit (ECF No. 1-2 in 2:15-cv-506), the transcript of the hearing
on Mr. Kamahele’s motion to withdraw his guilty plea (ECF No. 826 (Sealed) in
2:08-cr-758), Mr. Kamahele’s Motion to Withdraw his Guilty Plea (ECF No. 778
in 2:08-cr-758), and the other documents filed in Mr. Kamahele’s Section 2255
matter, the court finds that an evidentiary hearing is not necessary.
Strickland test “applies to challenges to guilty pleas based on ineffective
assistance of counsel.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 58 (1985). The same
applies to situations where a defendant rejects a plea offer. “Even if the trial is
free from constitutional flaw, the defendant who goes to trial instead of taking a
more favorable plea may be prejudiced from either a conviction on more serious
counts or the imposition of a more severe sentence.” Lafler, 566 U.S. at 166. But
to establish prejudice, the defendant must show, among other things, that “but for
the ineffective advice of counsel there is a reasonable probability that . . . the
defendant would have accepted the plea . . . .” Id. at 164. Mr. Kamahele has not
Mr. Kamahele initially claims that he “was not provided any advice by
[his] attorney at the plea withdrawal.” (Kamahele Aff. ¶ 9.) But other statements
in his affidavit contradict that assertion, including the fact that he met with her
before the hearing. He says that he “never spoke with [his] attorney about
withdrawing [his] plea until the day [he] was in Court on a ‘Motion to Withdraw
Plea.’” (Id. ¶ 6.) The time frame for action was so small—the trial was only
weeks away—that his attorney cannot be faulted for meeting with him on the
hearing date, particularly because he was in custody, which adds a layer of
difficulty to scheduling a meeting.
When Mr. Kamahele met with his counsel, she strongly advised against
withdrawing his plea. She made a point of clarifying that on the record.
As for his most recent statement that he did not grasp “the concept of
federal mandatory minimum sentences,” (Id. ¶ 8), he cannot avoid the
representations he made in his August 2011 Statement in Advance of Plea, which
included the following: “I hereby acknowledge and certify that I have been
advised of and that I understand the following facts and rights, and that I have had
the assistance of counsel in reviewing, explaining, and completing this form.”
(Statement by Def. in Advance of Plea of Guilty 1, ECF No. 74 in 2:08-cr-758.)
The statement listed the maximum sentence he was facing if he was convicted—
life in prison. (Id. at 2 ¶ 2.)
Despite that, Mr. Kamahele chose not to follow his attorney’s advice or
heed the court’s warning that withdrawing his guilty plea was not a wise choice.
His decision does not render the assistance he received ineffective. For these
reasons, he cannot overcome the strong presumption that his attorney’s conduct
fell within “the wide range of reasonable professional assistance.” United States
v. Carr, 80 F.3d 413, 417 (10th Cir. 1996).
ii. Due Process Claim Concerning Motion to Withdraw Guilty
Plea (Claim Two)
In Claim Two, Mr. Kamahele asserts that the district court erred when it
allowed him to withdraw his guilty plea. This claim fails both for procedural
reasons, and even if it were not procedurally barred, on the merits.
His claim of court error could have been raised on direct appeal but was
not. “Section 2255 motions are not available to test the legality of a matter which
should have been raised on direct appeal.” United States v. Warner, 23 F.3d 287,
291 (10th Cir. 1994). Accordingly, Mr. Kamahele’s claim is procedurally barred.
There are two exceptions to this bar. A court will consider a defaulted
claim if the petitioner shows “either  cause excusing the procedural default and
prejudice resulting from the error or  a fundamental miscarriage of justice if
the claim is not considered.” United States v. Cox, 83 F.3d 336, 341 (10th Cir.
1996). Mr. Kamahele has not explained why he did not, or could not, bring this
claim on direct appeal, and nothing in the record hints at a situation prohibiting
him from doing so. As for the fundamental-miscarriage-of-justice exception, the
court will assume, without deciding, that he meets that exception and is entitled to
a review of the merits of his claim.
For the reasons set forth below, Mr.
Kamahele does not succeed on the merits.
On August 11, 2011, Mr. Kamahele pleaded guilty under Rule 11(c)(1)(C),
which allowed him to withdraw his plea if the court did not accept the sentence
agreed upon by the parties. (See Aug. 11, 2011 Minute Entry, ECF No. 742 in
2:08-cr-758; Aug. 11, 2011 Statement in Advance of Plea, ECF No. 744 in 2:08cr-758.) The very next day, Mr. Kamahele asked his lawyer to assist him in
withdrawing his guilty plea. (See Tr. of Aug. 19, 2011 Hr’g on Mot. to Withdraw
Guilty Plea, ECF No. 826 in 2:08-cr-758.) He filed his motion one week later.
The procedure set forth in Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(d)(1)
applied because the court had not yet accepted Mr. Kamahele’s Rule 11(c)(1)(C)
plea. According to that rule, “[a] defendant may withdraw a plea of guilty . . .
before the court accepts the plea, for any reason or no reason.” Fed. R. Crim. P.
11(d)(1). In his motion Mr. Kamahele did not provide a reason to the court. 4
During the hearing, the court considered the fact that the guilty plea was an
In Mr. Kamahele’s affidavit, which was attached to his Petition, he said that on
August 12, 2011, one of his Co-Defendants asked him to withdraw his guilty plea
so Mr. Kamahele could “help him at trial.” (Kamahele Aff. ¶ 4.) That
information was not given to the court until Mr. Kamahele filed his current
11(c)(1)(C) plea and that Mr. Kamahele had moved to withdraw his guilty plea
only one week after he entered his plea. “That speed is one of the big factors.
That means that nobody is prejudiced.
The Government hasn’t called off
witnesses or anything.” (Tr. of Aug. 19, 2011 Hr’g on Mot. Withdraw Guilty
Plea 2.) Because his motion satisfied the factors under Rule 11(d)(1), the court
gave him permission to withdraw his plea. Ultimately, as the court reminded
him, it was his decision. But the court added that withdrawing his plea was not a
wise choice. Despite the court’s statement, and against the legal advice of his
attorney, Mr. Kamahele decided to withdraw his plea and go to trial.
Given the fact that Mr. Kamahele had the option to withdraw his guilty
plea “for any reason or no reason” and the fact that he consulted with his attorney
before doing so, the court deferred to Mr. Kamahele. See Fed. R. Crim. P.
The appropriate procedures were followed.
No violation of Mr.
Kamahele’s due-process rights occurred and he has not established that he is
entitled to relief under Claim Two.
b. Trial (Claims Three, Four, and Five)
concern events that happened during selection of the jury and testimony during
trial. In Claim Three, he alleges that his trial attorney was ineffective when she
did not move for a mistrial after a few potential jurors briefly saw him shackled
and wearing prison clothes. Claim Four is an extension of Claim Three: in Claim
Four he contends that his appellate attorney did not raise the mistrial issue on
direct appeal. In Claim Five Mr. Kamahele focuses on his counsel’s failure to
raise a claim of prosecutorial misconduct after a government witness refused,
while on the stand, to testify. In that claim, he contends that his counsel was
ineffective because failure to raise the issue at trial limited him to the onerous
plain-error standard of review on appeal. As explained below, none of these
claims pass the Strickland test.
i. Prison Garb and Shackles (Claims Three and Four)
During pre-trial proceedings, Mr. Kamahele was in custody. Each day,
before the proceedings in the courtroom began, the United States Deputy
Marshals transported Mr. Kamahele to the courtroom holding cell where he
changed into civilian clothes. The court allowed Mr. Kamahele to change into
civilian clothes so the potential jurors, and ultimately the jury panel, did not see
evidence that he was in custody. But at all other times, Mr. Kamahele remained
shackled and in prison garb.
Immediately before the voir dire process began, a small group of potential
jurors, on their way to the fourth-floor courtroom, inadvertently rode the elevator
to the basement. At the same time, Mr. Kamahele and other Co-Defendants,
while in the custody of U.S. Deputy Marshals, waited in the basement to catch the
same elevator. When the potential jurors’ elevator stopped, the doors opened,
revealing the shackled Co-Defendants in their prison garb, including Mr.
Kamahele. The potential jurors stayed in the elevator, the elevator doors closed,
and the Co-Defendants caught the next elevator. Mr. Kamahele’s Co-Defendant
Kepa Maumau told his attorney about the encounter, who brought it to the court’s
attention. (See Sept. 6, 2011 Trial Tr. at 23, ECF No. 1359 in 2:08-cr-758.)
During voir dire, the court attempted to determine which potential jury
members had witnessed the shackled Co-Defendants.
Numbers 15, 63, and 76—raised their hands. Juror Numbers 63 and 76 were not
chosen for the panel. The court questioned Juror Number 15 outside the presence
of the voir dire panel and in the presence of the attorneys.
This morning I guess you got on the elevator to
go up and it went down; right?
JUROR NO. 15:
And the door opened?
JUROR NO. 15:
What did you see?
JUROR NO. 15:
Some prisoners in handcuffs.
Okay. Did you recognize any of them?
JUROR NO. 15:
I seriously did not focus on their faces.
JUROR NO. 15:
I couldn’t pick any of them out in the lineup or
And you recognize that although I always think I
am the only show in town, that there are other
courtrooms going on –
JUROR NO. 15:
– and other trials.
JUROR NO. 15:
Yes. I didn’t think anything of it.
Okay. The fact that in this building there might
be people who are in handcuffs, would that affect
your ability to be impartial?
JUROR NO. 15:
All right, questions.
How long was the observation?
JUROR NO. 15:
About 20 seconds, just long enough for the doors
to shut again. It wasn’t very long.
The door open and shut and that’s it?
JUROR NO. 15:
You didn’t look at anything? You can’t
remember anything about anybody?
JUROR NO. 15:
I seriously didn’t. I didn’t think anything of it
until you asked that question again this morning.
Any questions over here? Ms. Skordas?
MS. SKORDAS: No.
Anybody else? United States?
Nothing, your honor.
Everything’s that’s happened so far as you think
about it, think you could be fair in this case to
JUROR NO. 15:
(Sep. 6, 2011 Trial Tr. 191–92.)
None of the attorneys asked the court to strike Juror Number 15 for cause.
And the court found no cause to dismiss Juror Number 15. Later, Mr. Kamahele
asked his appellate counsel to raise the issue in his direct appeal, but she did not.
(Kamahele Aff. ¶ 13.)
Mr. Kamahele contends that his attorney provided ineffective assistance
when she did not appeal the court’s decision to keep those members on the list of
potential jurors. But it was objectively reasonable for an attorney to decide not to
appeal the court’s decision.
First, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected arguments very
similar to the one Mr. Kamahele makes now. In United States v. Simpson, the
Tenth Circuit said that “this circuit, as well as many others, has held that an
isolated view by jurors of a defendant in handcuffs does not justify a new trial in
the absence of a showing of actual prejudice.” 950 F.2d 1519, 1522 (10th Cir.
Second, Mr. Kamahele’s situation falls within the four corners of United
States v. Johnson, in which the Tenth Circuit held that “a juror’s fleeting glance
of a defendant in handcuffs [did] not warrant a mistrial . . . [when] [t]he trial court
made a full inquiry as to whether this incident would prejudice the jury [and] [n]o
juror indicated any ability to be impartial.” 911 F.2d 1394, 1397 (10th Cir. 1990)
(citations and internal quotation marks omitted).
Here, two of the three
individuals who saw Mr. Kamahele in his prison garb never served on the jury
and no evidence suggests that their experience affected the individuals who were
chosen to be on the jury. The third individual who did serve on jury (Juror No.
15) indicated an ability to be impartial.
Given the deference the court must give to the attorney’s decisions, the
court finds that Mr. Kamahele’s counsel’s decision to forego a challenge was
ii. Prosecutorial Misconduct (Claim Five)
During trial, the United States called Mr. Epeti Maa to testify. The Tenth
Circuit summed up the situation:
When the prosecutor asked Mr. Naa whether he lived in Utah, he
refused to answer. When asked if he had heard the question, Mr.
Naa replied that he had, but that he “actually didn’t want to have
anything to say.” At that point, the district court excused the jury.
When questioned by the district court, the prosecutor admitted that
he had known that Mr. Naa was “unhappy about being here” and
“not [in] a comfortable situation,” but had not known that Mr. Naa
would refuse to answer a single question. The district court accepted
this explanation and found that the prosecutor had not committed
United States v. Kamahele, 748 F.3d 984, 1018 (10th Cir. 2014) (citation and
internal quotation marks omitted).
Because Mr. Kamahele’s counsel did not contemporaneously object or
move for a mistrial, Mr. Kamahele was confined to the “plain error” standard of
review on appeal. See id. at 1018. Under that standard “the defendant must show
that the district court erred, that the error was plain, that the error affected his
substantial rights, and that the error seriously affect[ed] the fairness, integrity, or
public reputation of judicial proceedings.” Id. at 1018 (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted) (alteration in original).
The Tenth Circuit, applying that standard, upheld the court’s finding that
no prosecutorial misconduct occurred. It found no obvious error and concluded
that Mr. Kamahele’s “substantial rights were not involved” because “[t]he trial
involved eight defendants, and the jury had no reason to suspect that Mr. Naa
would testify about Mr. Kamahele.” Id. at 1018.
Mr. Kamahele was not prejudiced by the plain-error standard applied on
appeal because the outcome on appeal would have been the same even if Mr.
Kamahele’s counsel had moved for a mistrial (which would have invoked the
more lenient harmless-error standard). Rule 52 of the Federal Rules of Criminal
Procedure provides the harmless-error and plain-error standards of review. The
court applies the harmless-error standard if the party objected during trial: “Any
error, defect, irregularity, or variance that does not affect substantial rights must
be disregarded.” Fed. R. Crim. P. 52(a). But if a party fails to object at the trial
stage, the court reviews the decision for plain error. Fed. R. Crim. P. 52(b). And
a “plain error that affects substantial rights may be considered even though it was
not brought to the court’s attention.” Id.
Under Rule 52(b)’s plain-error standard, the court first determines whether
the error was “plain,” which has also been referred to as “clear” or “obvious.”
United States v. Olano, 507 U.S. 725, 734 (1993). If the error was plain, the court
must determine whether the error “affected substantial rights.” Fed. R. Civ. P.
52(b). That language “is the same language employed in Rule 52(a), and in most
cases it means that the error must have been prejudicial: It must have affected the
outcome of the district court proceedings.” Olano, 507 U.S. at 734.
The only distinction between the harmless-error and plain-error standards
of review is where the burden lies. “Rule 52(b) normally requires the same kind
of inquiry [applied in a harmless-error standard of review], with one important
difference: It is the defendant rather than the Government who bears the burden
of persuasion with respect to prejudice.” Id. The burden shifting “is dictated by a
subtle but important difference in language between two parts of Rule 52: While
Rule 52(a) precludes error correction only if the error does not affect substantial
rights’, Rule 52(b) authorizes no remedy unless the error does affec[t] substantial
rights.” Id. at 734–35 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted) (emphasis
and alteration in original).
Here, the Tenth Circuit found that the court did not commit plain error.
See Kamahele, 748 F.3d at 1018. But “[e]ven if the finding constituted an
obvious error, . . . reversal would be unwarranted because Mr. Kamahele has not
shown any effect on his substantial rights. . . . The trial involved eight defendants,
and the jury had no reason to suspect that Mr. Naa would testify about Mr.
Kamahele.” Id. (internal citation omitted).
Because the Tenth Circuit found no error, the issue of whether Mr.
Kamahele’s attorney objected at trial had no bearing on the outcome. The result
would have been the same regardless of whether the plain-error or the harmlesserror review standard was applied. See also United States v. Walsh, Case No. 14
C 6537, 2016 WL 561908, *6 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 12, 2016) (finding that a § 2255
petitioner was not prejudiced because the appellate court “considered the
arguments that [petitioner] forfeited and rejected them” so “[e]ven if his attorney
had objected and preserved the ability to challenge the [ruling] on appeal,” the
result would have been the same).
Ultimately, Mr. Kamahele cannot show
prejudice under the Strickland standard.
For the foregoing reasons, the court denies all of the claims Mr. Kamahele
raised in his original petition.
Kepa Maumau brings eleven claims alleging ineffective assistance by his
trial counsel.5 Some of his claims share common themes, so the court categorizes
Mr. Maumau’s claims below based on the relevant events.
a. Gen-X Store Robbery Investigation (Claim One)
Mr. Maumau asserts that his counsel was ineffective because she failed to
investigate the Gen-X store robbery, including failing to interview the three GenX witnesses who identified him as one of the robbers. One of those witnesses
was Edward Kamoto, his accomplice.
The Gen-X robbery served as a predicate act for the Government’s RICO
claim. (See Second Superseding Indictment, ECF No. 114 in 2:08-cr-758.) The
robbery was one of nine predicate acts charged against Mr. Maumau in the
Second Superseding Indictment. (Id.) The Government needed to prove two of
Mr. Maumau also requested an evidentiary hearing. (See Maumau Am. Petition
at 31, ECF No. 10 in 2:15-cv-600.) The record is sufficient to determine Mr.
Maumau’s claim, so no evidentiary hearing is necessary.
the predicate acts.
See 18 U.S.C. § 1961(5) (providing that a “‘pattern of
racketeering activity’ requires at least two acts of racketeering activity”). The
jury found Mr. Maumau guilty of five predicate acts, including the Gen-X
robbery. (See Special Verdict for Kepa Maumau, ECF No. 1109 in 2:08-cr-758.)
Even if Mr. Maumau’s counsel successfully defended him from conviction of the
Gen-X robbery, it would not matter because the jury found Mr. Maumau guilty of
four other acts, none of which he discusses in his petition. Accordingly, he
cannot establish prejudice based on his trial counsel’s failure to investigate the
facts of the Gen-X robbery.
b. Expert Witness Break Merino (Claims Two and Ten)
Mr. Maumau contends that his attorney was ineffective because she did not
challenge the qualifications and opinions of the Government’s gang expert, Break
Merino (Claim Two), and did not object to Mr. Merino’s trial testimony (Claim
Despite Mr. Maumau’s representation to the contrary, his attorney did file a
motion to exclude Break Merino’s testimony. (See Fangupo Mot. to Exclude
Break Merino as Expert Witness, ECF No. 362 in 2:08-cr-758; Kepa Maumau’s
Mot. for Joinder in Fangupo Mot., ECF No. 378; Order granting Mot. for Joinder,
ECF No. 379.) Moreover, the court held a Daubert hearing to test Mr. Merino’s
qualifications and opinions.
Lastly, Mr. Maumau’s attorney (as well as other defense attorneys) crossexamined Mr. Merino at trial. (See ECF Nos. 1353 and 1368 in 2:08-cr-758.)
Mr. Maumau takes issue with the content of his attorney’s cross-examination (see
Maumau Original Petition 33, ECF No. 1 in 2:15-cv-600), but Mr. Maumau’s
strategic differences fail to show that his attorney’s performance fell below an
objective standard of reasonableness, particularly given the high deference the
court must pay to counsel. Furthermore, Mr. Maumau does not establish how the
alleged error could have had any “conceivable effect on the outcome of the
proceeding,” much less that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for
counsel’s professional errors, . . . the factfinder would have had a reasonable
doubt respecting guilt.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 693–95.
Claims Two and Ten fail both prongs of the Strickland test.
c. Evidence of Mr. Maumau’s Involvement In a Conspiracy
(Claims Three and Four)
Mr. Maumau insists that if his attorney had interviewed Edward Kamoto,
the Government’s fact witness, she would have found evidence that Mr. Maumau
was not part of the conspiracy alleged in the Indictment. Mr. Kamoto, when
interviewed by the FBI, identified Mr. Maumau as his accomplice in a series of
robberies. Mr. Maumau asked his attorney “to investigate and interview Edward
Kamoto about the robberies and their relation to TCG.” (Original Petition of
Kepa Maumau at 18, ECF No. 1 in 2:15-cv-600.) He asserts that she would have
gathered evidence that the robberies were not committed in furtherance of TCG.
If she had done that, he maintains, she “would have been prepared to elicit
favorable testimony from Kamoto that would have changed the outcome of the
proceeding.” (Id. at 21.)
But at trial, Mr. Kamoto “testified that he and Mr. Kepa Maumau were
TCG members, that TCG members were expected to commit crimes, and that
criminal activity served to advance their reputations in the gang.” Kamahele, 748
F.3d at 1010. He “also testified that the crimes had raised his status in the gang
and that he had received greater attention from fellow gang members upon his
release from prison.” Id. Then the “Exit Plan,” in Mr. Maumau’s own words,
“described his involvement in TCG and confirmed that he had committed the
crimes to advance his reputation in the gang.”
The evidence was
Mr. Maumau incorrectly asserts that his attorney introduced the Exit Plan during
trial. See infra discussion about Claim Nine.
overwhelming and anything Mr. Maumau suggests would have been solicited
from Mr. Kamoto is contradicted by Mr. Kamoto’s own testimony.
In Claim Four, which is similar to Claim Three, Mr. Maumau faults his
attorney for failing to interview Co-Defendants Eric Kamahele and Mataika Tuai
to also establish that his robberies were not committed in furtherance of TCG.
For the same reasons the court rejects Claim Three, Mr. Maumau’s Claim Four
fails the Strickland test.
d. Cross-Examination of Edward Kamoto (Claim Five)
According to Mr. Maumau, his attorney’s cross-examination of Mr.
Kamoto was ineffective and should have generated favorable testimony. His
attorney did not ask Mr. Kamoto about the purpose of committing the robberies,
which, Mr. Maumau says, would have resulted in statements that the crimes were
not committed for the purpose of furthering TCG as an enterprise.
But Mr. Kamoto testified on direct examination that the crimes were
committed for the purpose of furthering the purpose of TCG. It was objectively
reasonable that Mr. Maumau’s attorney did not ask questions that would re-hash
testimony harmful to her client. Moreover, as Mr. Maumau notes in his original
petition, counsel for Co-Defendants Daniel Maumau and Mr. Kamahele did bring
out favorable information that supported his contention that he did not commit the
robberies to further his position in TCG. (See Maumau Original Petition 22-25.)
So, according to Mr. Maumau’s own petition, he was not prejudiced because the
information he wanted his attorney to elicit was actually brought out on the stand.
For these reasons, his Claim Five fails the Strickland test.
e. “Alternative Lines of Defense” (Claim Six)
Mr. Maumau contends that his attorney was ineffective because she failed
to pursue a defense that would have negated any evidence of motive or intent on
his part to commit the crimes charged. All he says to support this claim is that he
“asked Counsel to consider Maumau’s college receipts found in his car as
evidence for motive or lack of intent defense.” (Maumau Original Petition at 26.)
When his counsel did not do so, she “failed to discover that [the] robberies were
not related to TCG.” (Id. at 27.) The court cannot see any relevant link between
the college receipts, Mr. Maumau’s motive and intent, and the purpose of the
robberies, and Mr. Maumau does not elaborate. In the face of overwhelming
evidence against him, he has not established any prejudice by the alleged failure
of his attorney to consider the college receipts or use them to present a defense.
f. “Meaningful Adverse Testing” of the Government’s Case (Claim
This claim essentially re-asserts the arguments Mr. Maumau raises in his
other claims (for example, Claims Two and Ten address his attorney’s alleged
failure to challenge the Government’s expert witness Break Merino, and Claim
Five concerns his attorney’s alleged failure to effectively cross-examine Edward
Kamoto). For the same reasons the court rejected those claims, the court rejects
Mr. Maumau’s Claim Seven.
g. Jailhouse Telephone Call (Claim Eight)
Co-Defendant Eric Kamahele made a telephone call from jail that was
recorded and admitted as evidence at trial. According to Mr. Maumau, he was
wronged when his attorney failed to file a motion to suppress the recording and
failed to object at trial to its admission. He says the recording harmed him
because it tied him to the alleged conspiracy: “Maumau is assumed to have
agreed to [sic] Eric Kamahele’s statement” that Mr. Kamahele had to commit at
least three crimes to further his position in TCG and that “[t]he jury was able to
infer from Eric’s phone call, [sic] the elements of an enterprise and that a
conspiracy existed.” (Maumau Original Petition 29–30.)
Mr. Maumau does not state why he thinks a motion to suppress or an
objection would have successfully excluded the recording from evidence. See,
e.g., United States v. Alcorta, 853 F.3d 1123, 1140 (10th Cir. 2017) (holding that
recorded jail telephone conversation was admissible against co-conspirators
because it was made in furtherance of conspiracy); see also United States v.
Apodaca, --- F. Supp. 3d ---, 2017 WL 1435715, at *3 (D.D.C. Apr. 21, 2017)
(noting that the “vast weight of authority” demonstrates that a pre-trial detainee
has no reasonable expectation of privacy in calls initiated from jail where
prisoners are given notice that all telephone calls are monitored and recorded)
(citing multiple authorities). And the fact that the evidence was harmful does not
lead to the conclusion that his attorney provided ineffective assistance of counsel
or that, with its exclusion, “the factfinder would have had a reasonable doubt
respecting guilt.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694–95. Mr. Maumau has not satisfied
either Strickland prong for Claim Eight.
h. “Exit Plan” (Claim Nine)
Mr. Maumau contends that his attorney improperly introduced the “Exit
Plan” document into evidence. But his attorney did not introduce the “Exit Plan”
into evidence; the Government did. Accordingly, there is no factual basis to
support his Claim Nine.
i. Cumulative Effect of Errors (Claim Eleven)
Mr. Maumau’s claim of cumulative effect fails because the court holds that
no error occurred. “[A] cumulative-error analysis should evaluate only the effect
of matters determined to be error, not the cumulative effect of non-errors.”
United States v. Rivera, 900 F.2d 1462, 1471 (10th Cir. 1990). In other words,
“there is no holding of error, no error to cumulate, and no occasion to apply a
cumulative-error analysis.” Id. at 1472.
The only exception to this rule is when “the entire trial was so
fundamentally unfair that defendant’s due process rights were violated.” Id. at
1471 n.8. But this “fundamental fairness” analysis is “reserved for the most
serious cases, which truly shock the conscience as well as the mind.” Id. at 1477
(internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Nothing in the record comes
close to suggesting that the performance of Mr. Maumau’s counsel or other
circumstances at trial resulted in a fundamentally unfair trial for Mr. Maumau.
For the foregoing reasons, Mr. Maumau’s Original Petition is denied.
JOHNSON-BASED CHALLENGES TO 924(c) CONVICTIONS
Petitioners, relying on the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. United
States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), contend that treating their underlying convictions
as “crimes of violence” under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(3)(B) violates due process. The
Government responds that Johnson does not apply to § 924(c).
In Johnson, the Supreme Court held that the residual clause of the Armed
Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is unconstitutionally vague. Id. at 2557. The
ACCA’s residual clause defines a “violent felony” as one that “involves conduct
that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” 18 U.S.C.
Section 924(c)(3) defines a “crime of violence” as a felony that:
(A) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of
physical force against the person or property of another, or
(B) by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force
against the person or property of another may be used in the
course of committing the offense.
Section 924(c)(3)(B), often referred to as the “risk-of-force clause,” is similar,
though not identical, to the ACCA’s residual clause.
See 18 U.S.C.
Petitioners assert that, in light of Johnson, the risk-of-force clause is
unconstitutionally vague. Absent the risk-of-force clause, Petitioners claim that
their underlying crimes cannot qualify as crimes of violence and their 924(c)
convictions cannot stand.
“A district court is authorized to modify a Defendant’s sentence only in
specified instances where Congress has expressly granted the court jurisdiction to
do so.” United States v. Blackwell, 81 F.3d 945, 947 (10th Cir. 1996). Under 28
U.S.C. § 2255, a prisoner can move the court to vacate or correct a sentence if the
sentence was unconstitutional or otherwise illegal.
Ordinarily, a petitioner has one year to file his § 2255 motion from “the
date on which the judgment of conviction becomes final.”
§ 2255(f)(1). But when a petitioner asserts a right “recognized by the Supreme
Court and made retroactively applicable to cases on collateral review,” the oneyear period begins to run from the “date on which the right asserted was initially
recognized by the Supreme Court.” Id. at § 2255(f)(3).
Here, Petitioners were convicted in 2011 and the Tenth Circuit decided
their direct appeal on April 8, 2014. See United States v. Kamahele, 748 F.3d
984 (10th Cir. 2014). Mr. Kamahele and Mr. Toki did not seek review with the
Supreme Court, nor did they seek a rehearing with the Tenth Circuit.
Accordingly, their convictions became final 90 days later—July 7, 2014. See
United States v. Martin, 357 F.3d 1198, 1200 (10th Cir. 2004). Mr. Maumau
sought a rehearing of his petition, which the Tenth Circuit denied on May 23,
2014, making his conviction final 90 days later—August 21, 2014.
Petitioners raised the Johnson-based challenges to their 924(c) convictions for the
first time in the summer of 2016, all more than one year after their “judgement of
conviction” became final. 28 U.S.C. § 2255(f)(1).1 But Petitioners filed these
challenges within one year of the Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson.
Consequently, Petitioners rely on § 2255(f)(3) and, under that subsection, the
Mr. Kamahele and Mr. Maumau both filed pro se petitions within the one-year
limitations period. Then, on July 6, 2016, they filed amended petitions raising for
the first time the Johnson-based challenges to their 924(c) convictions. Though a
district court “may, in its discretion, permit an amendment which clarifies or
amplifies a claim or theory in a timely filed § 2255 petition,” an amendment that
“seek[s] to add a new claim or to insert a new theory into the case,” does not
relate back to the original filing and must itself be timely. United States v.
Espinoza-Saenz, 235 F.3d 501, 504–05 (10th Cir. 2000) (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted). Holding otherwise “would be tantamount to judicial
rescission” of the applicable statute of limitations. Id. at 505. Petitioners
challenges to their 924(c) convictions are “totally separate and distinct” from
those raised in their original petitions. Id. As a result, Mr. Kamahele’s and Mr.
Maumau’s Johnson-based challenges to their 924(c) convictions do not relate
back to their original petitions.
pertinent issue for timeliness is whether Johnson established the right that
Petitioners now assert.
Petitioners argue that Johnson invalidates 924(c)’s risk-of-force clause and
they direct the court to Golicov v. Lynch, a recent decision from the United States
Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit for support. 837 F.3d 1065 (10th Cir.
2016). In Golicov, the Tenth Circuit held that Johnson applies to the risk-of-force
clause in 18 U.S.C. § 16(b), making it unconstitutionally vague. Id. at 1072. And
the Tenth Circuit has also recognized that § 16(b) “is identical to” the risk-offorce clause in 924(c)(3)(B). United States v. Autobee, No. 17-1082, 2017 WL
2871893, at *3 (10th Cir. July 6, 2017). As a result, “it is reasonable to argue that
[the Tenth Circuit] would similarly extend the reasoning of Johnson to invalidate
the risk of force clause in § 924(c)(3)(B).” Id.
But in determining whether Petitioners’ Johnson-based challenges to their
924(c) convictions qualify as timely, the question is whether the Supreme Court
itself has recognized the right at issue, not the Tenth Circuit. See 28 U.S.C.
§ 2255(f)(3) (measuring the one-year filing deadline from “the date on which the
right asserted was initially recognized by the Supreme Court, if that right has
been newly recognized by the Supreme Court . . .”); E.J.R.E. v. United States,
453 F.3d 1094, 1098 (8th Cir. 2006) (stating that “a decision taken from a federal
court of appeals does not provide an independent basis to trigger the one year
statute of limitations provided under [§ 2255(f)(3)]”); Ellis v. United States, No.
2:16-CV-484, 2017 WL 2345562, at *2 (D. Utah May 30, 2017) (“[A] right
recognized by the Tenth Circuit is not sufficient under the terms of” § 2255(f)(3)
to restart the one-year period.) For that reason, Golicov does not control here.
The question is whether Petitioners assert the same right announced in
Johnson, or whether they instead assert a new right that the Supreme Court has
yet to recognize. A right qualifies as “new” if it “is not dictated by precedent.”
Chaidez v. United States, 568 U.S. 342, 347 (2013) (citation and internal
quotation marks omitted).
A right is “dictated by precedent” only if “it is
apparent to all reasonable jurists.” Id. (citation and internal quotation marks
omitted). So the inquiry is whether Johnson dictates or compels invalidation of
924(c)’s risk-of-force clause.
After thoroughly reviewing Johnson, subsequent § 924(c) caselaw, and the
parties’ briefing, the court concludes that Johnson does not dictate invalidation of
the risk-of-force clause. Johnson limits itself to the ACCA. And it is far from
“apparent to all reasonable jurists” that Johnson invalidates § 924(c)’s risk-of37
force clause as unconstitutionally vague. In fact, several courts of appeal have
held the opposite—that Johnson does not invalidate § 924(c)’s risk-of-force
clause. See United States v. Prickett, 839 F.3d 697, 699–700 (8th Cir. 2016);
United States v. Hill, 832 F.3d 135, 145–50 (2d Cir. 2016); United States v.
Taylor, 814 F.3d 340, 375–79 (6th Cir. 2016). As a result, Johnson does not
dictate the right Petitioners assert. And because Johnson does not dictate the right
Petitioners assert, they cannot avail themselves of § 2255(f)(3), making their
Johnson-based challenges time-barred.
A recent unpublished case from the Tenth Circuit supports this conclusion.
In United States v. Autobee, a petitioner challenged his § 924(c) conviction
almost ten years after his conviction became final, but within one year of the
Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson. 2017 WL 2871893, at *3. The petitioner
argued that his underlying crime of armed bank robbery no longer qualified as a
“crime of violence” after Johnson and, consequently, his conviction should be
vacated. Id. at *1. The district court denied the petitioner’s motion. It ruled that
the motion was “untimely because he filed it more than one year after the
judgment of conviction became final and Johnson did not establish the right [he] .
. . assert[ed].” Id. at *2. The petitioner sought a certificate of appeal from the
Tenth Circuit, contending that Johnson created the right he asserted because
“there is no meaningful distinction between the ACCA’s residual clause and the
risk of force clause in § 924(c)(3)(B).” Id. at *3.
The Tenth Circuit denied the request for a certificate of appeal. It held that,
“[e]ven if [it] were to conclude that the reasoning of Johnson should be extended
to invalidate § 924(c)(3)(B)—which is not itself obvious even after holding that
§ 16(b) is unconstitutional—it is far from ‘apparent to all reasonable jurists’ that
§ 924(c)(3)(B) is unconstitutional under Johnson.” Id. at *4 (quoting Chaidez,
568 U.S. at 347). Consequently, it held that “Johnson does not dictate the right
[the petitioner] asserts, as he seeks an altogether new right the Supreme Court has
yet to recognize.” Id.
The court agrees with the well-reasoned analysis in
Consequently, the court concludes that the Supreme Court has yet to recognize
the right Petitioners assert.
Petitioners argue that they are “actually innocent” of their VICAR and
§ 924(c) convictions because, regardless of Johnson, their underlying crimes do
not qualify as crimes of violence. Petitioners note that a procedurally defaulted
and untimely claim can be pursued based on a showing of action innocence. The
Government responds that Petitioners’ claims do not qualify as actual-innocence
claims. As a result, the Government contends that these claims are untimely and
28 U.S.C. § 2255 allows a petitioner to claim “the right to be released upon
the ground that the sentence was imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws
of the United States.” Because a § 2255 claim is not intended as a substitute for
an appeal, “failure to raise an issue either at trial or on direct appeal imposes a
procedural bar” to raising that issue through a § 2255 claim. United States v.
Barajas-Diaz, 313 F.3d 1242, 1245 (10th Cir. 2002). Additionally, as discussed
above, a petitioner typically must file his § 2255 motion within one year from
“the date on which the judgment of conviction becomes final.”
§ 2255(f)(1). However, as a result of § 2255’s distinct “equitable nature,” courts
ignore procedural and time bars when a petitioner’s claim “falls within the narrow
class of cases . . . implicating a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Schlup v.
Delo, 513 U.S. 298, 314–15, 20 (citation and internal quotations omitted) (ellipsis
The “fundamental miscarriage” exception is “rare” and applies only in the
“extraordinary case.” Id. at 320. For this reason, the Supreme Court has tied the
exception to a petitioner’s “actual innocence.” Id. Notably, the term “‘[a]ctual
innocence’ means factual innocence, not mere legal insufficiency.” Bousley v.
United States, 523 U.S. 614, 623 (1998). In these rare cases “an assertion of
innocence may allow a petitioner to have his accompanying constitutional claims
heard despite a procedural bar.” Rivas v. Fischer, 687 F.3d 514, 540 (2d Cir.
2012) (citing Schlup, 513 U.S. at 315). Accordingly, an actual-innocence claim is
a “gateway” through which a petitioner may pass to have his otherwise-barred
constitutional claims heard on the merits. Schlup, 513 U.S. at 316. But again, an
actual-innocence claim should “not be allowed to do service for an appeal.”
Bousley, 523 U.S. at 621.
To establish actual innocence, a petitioner must provide “new evidence”
sufficient to convince the court that “it is more likely than not that no reasonable
juror would have convicted him in the light of the new evidence.” Schlup, 513
U.S. at 327; see also House v. Bell, 547 U.S. 518, 537–38 (2006) (stating that a
petitioner must “produce new reliable evidence,” specifically “evidence the trial
jury did not have before it” (citation and internal quotation marks omitted));
McQuiggin v. Perkins, 133 S. Ct. 1924, 1933 (2013) (holding that the actualinnocence exception applies only to the “severely confined category” of cases “in
which new evidence shows it is more likely than not that no reasonable juror
would have convicted” the petitioner (citation and internal quotation marks
Here, Petitioners argue that they are innocent of their VICAR and § 924(c)
convictions because their underlying crimes were improperly classified as crimes
of violence. Though Petitioners appealed their convictions, they did not raise
these arguments on appeal, even though the statutes and the accompanying
statutory definitions all predate their appeals. Nor did Petitioners bring these
claims within one year from the date their convictions became final. Accordingly,
Petitioners argue that they are “actually innocent” of their VICAR and 924(c)
convictions, seeking to use the fundamental-miscarriage-of-justice exception to
avoid their procedural and time bars.
But Petitioners’ claims do not qualify as actual-innocence claims. They do
not fit within the “narrow class of cases . . . implicating a fundamental
miscarriage of justice.”
Schlup, 513 U.S. at 314–15 (citation and internal
quotations omitted) (ellipsis in original). Petitioners point to no new evidence
regarding their innocence. Schlup, 513 U.S. at 327. Instead, Petitioners argue
only that their prior crimes were misclassified for purposes of VICAR and 924(c).
As such, Petitioners arguments are of “legal insufficiency,” not “factual
innocence,” and they do not merit the actual-innocence exception. Bousley, 523
U.S. at 623.
Several out-of-circuit opinions support this conclusion. For example, in
McKay v. United States, a petitioner argued that he was “actually innocent” of an
ACCA career-offender enhancement because his prior conviction “should not
have been classified as a ‘crime of violence.’” 657 F.3d 1190, 1199 (11th Cir.
2011). The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that the
Petitioner’s argument qualified as a “purely legal argument,” not an actualinnocence argument. Id. Other courts have also concluded that claims like
Petitioners’ are claims of legal insufficiency that should have been raised on
direct appeal. See e.g. Damon v. United States, 732 F.3d 1, 2–3 (1st Cir. 2013)
(holding that because the petitioner contested “only the categorization of his prior
conduct as a crime of violence,” he did not plead “‘actual innocence’ as defined
in Bousley.”); United States v. Pettiford, 612 F.3d 270, 283–84 (4th Cir. 2010)
(concluding that arguments about the “legal classification of . . . predicate crimes”
do not qualify as actual-innocence claims).
That claims based on legal insufficiencies do not qualify for the actualinnocence exception makes sense. The actual-innocence exception stems from
the Supreme Court’s effort to strike a balance between the petitioner’s interest “in
obtaining his release from custody if he is innocent” and the countervailing
interest in the finality of judgments. Schlup, 513 U.S. at 321. If defendants, like
petitioners, believe that the government failed to prove all the elements of a crime
for which they were convicted, they can seek relief on appeal. Allowing a
defendant to forego a direct appeal, only to bring an actual-innocence claim years
later would destroy the equilibrium the Supreme Court sought to establish: it
would encourage delay and call into question the finality of judgments.
Petitioner’s actual-innocence claims also fail because, instead of using
actual innocence as a gateway to litigate otherwise-barred claims, petitioners
assert actual innocence as their substantive grounds for relief. It is true, as
Petitioners point out, that the Supreme Court has not definitively resolved the
question of whether a “prisoner may be entitled to habeas relief based on a
freestanding claim of actual innocence.” McQuiggin v. Perkins, 133 S. Ct. 1924,
1931 (2013). But the Court has never recognized that such a right exists. Rather,
it has stated that “a claim of ‘actual innocence’ is not itself a constitutional claim,
but instead a gateway through which a habeas petitioner must pass to have his
otherwise barred constitutional claim considered on the merits.”
Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 404 (1993). And the Tenth Circuit has followed the
Supreme Court’s “strong suggest[ion]” that an actual-innocence claim is not,
“by itself, an adequate basis for habeas relief.” Stafford v. Saffle, 34 F.3d 1557,
1561 (10th Cir. 1994). The Tenth Circuit has held that “an assertion of actual
innocence, although operating as a potential pathway for reaching otherwise
defaulted constitutional claims, does not, standing alone, support the granting of
the writ of habeas corpus.” LaFevers v. Gibson, 238 F.3d 1263, 1265 n.4 (10th
Cir. 2001); see also Sellers v. Ward, 135 F.3d 1333, 1339 (10th Cir. 1998) (a
“claim of innocence is merely the means by which an otherwise barred
constitutional error affecting the fairness of the petitioner’s trial can be heard”).
The court follows this precedent here, as it must.
Petitioners resist the court’s conclusion and point to several cases that they
believe establish that actual-innocence claims do not require new evidence and
can stand alone. See e.g. Bousley v. United States, 523 U.S. 614 (1998); Phillips
v. United States, 734 F.3d 573 (6th Cir. 2013); United States v. Adams, 814 F.3d
178 (4th Cir. 2016). But in all of these cases, the parties argued that changes
occurred in the relevant underlying law after the petitioners appealed. Petitioners
do not argue that the underlying law has changed here. Consequently, these cases
do not help them.
For the reasons discussed above, the court DENIES Petitioners’ motions to
vacate or amend the judgements.
DATED this 9th day of August, 2017.
BY THE COURT:
U.S. District Court Judge
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