United States District Court, District of Columbia
April 18, 2013
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
MICHELLE ASHTON, Defendant
For DAVID M. DALE, Defendant: Cynthia M. Monaco, LEAD ATTORNEY, ROPES & GRAY, Washington, DC; Roger Campbell Spaeder, LEAD ATTORNEY, ZUCKERMAN SPAEDER, LLP, Washington, DC; Samuel John Buffone, LEAD ATTORNEY, BUCKLEYSANDLER LLP, Washington, DC.
For MICHELLE ASHTON, Defendant: Nancy Luque, LEAD ATTORNEY, LUQUE MARINO LLP, Washington, DC; Peter Goldberger, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, LAW OFFICE OF PETER GOLDBERGER, Ardmore, PA.
For AUTOMATED DATA MANAGEMENT, INC., Defendant: Jacob A. Stein, LEAD ATTORNEY, STEIN, MITCHELL & MUSE, L.L.P., Washington, DC.
For UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff: Janice Traver, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Office of International Affairs, Criminal Division, Washington, DC; Mark Henry Dubester, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Criminal Division, Washington, DC; Sherri Lee Berthrong, LEAD ATTORNEY, U.S. ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Washington, DC.
Royce C. Lamberth, Chief United States District Judge.
Before the Court is defendant Michelle Ashton's Motion  to Vacate Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Defendant claims that her Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial was violated when the trial judge instructed the jury that the question of materiality was a matter for the court to determine. Defendant moves the Court to vacate her convictions and sentence. Upon consideration of the Motion , defendant's Memorandum of Points and Authorities in Support of Motion , the government's Opposition , the entire record herein, and the applicable law, defendant's Motion will be DENIED.
A. Defendant's Underlying Offenses
Defendant created the corporation Data Management, Inc. (" ADM" ) in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s. United States v. Dale, 991 F.2d 819, 826, 301 U.S. App. D.C. 110 (D.C. Cir. 1993). ADM eventually obtained a contract to sell computers to the United States Army and thereafter expanded into Europe and Asia. Id. One of ADM's employees, David Bowers, left the company in 1987 after secretly taping telephone conversations between himself and defendant. Id. Bowers subsequently assisted a government investigation of ADM's operations that led to defendant's indictment and conviction. Id. Defendant's conviction was based on her fraudulent tax treatment of various financial transactions involving ADM's Asian and European operations
and on certain alleged misrepresentations or nondisclosures on government forms completed by defendant and her co-defendant, David Dale. Id.
B. Procedural History
Defendant was indicted in 1990 on seven counts related to conspiracy, tax, and fraud offenses.  Presentence Investigation Report (" PSR" ) 1c, ¶ ¶ 1-2, Sept. 28, 1990. Defendant was convicted on all counts after a jury trial. PSR ¶ 3. In 1991, the district court sentenced defendant to 37 months imprisonment for the conspiracy conviction and concurrent 30-month terms for each of the remaining convictions. Am. J. & Commitment Order 1-2, July 18, 1991. The D.C. Circuit affirmed all of defendant's convictions but remanded the case to the district court for resentencing on a merger of convictions issue.  Dale, 991 F.2d at 858-59. In response to the D.C. Circuit's holding, the district court vacated Count Three  and re-sentenced defendant to concurrent terms of six months for each of the remaining counts. Am. J. & Commitment Order (Resentencing), June 6, 1996.
Defendant filed a timely Motion to Vacate Sentence pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255 on June 27, 1997,  claiming several constitutional violations. Def.'s M. 1, 4-6, ECF No. 120. The Court never acted on the Motion. In 2002, defendant filed a supplement to her Motion in which she dropped all claims except one: a violation of her Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Def.'s Mem. 1, ECF No. 139, Oct. 21, 2002. Defendant claims that she was denied a jury trial because the trial judge instructed the jury that the question of materiality was a question of law for the
court to determine. The government opposes defendant's motion on the ground that the motion is procedurally barred. Gov.'s Opp'n 1, ECF No. 146.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
A. 2255 Motion
A motion under 18 U.S.C. § 2255 allows federal prisoners to collaterally attack an otherwise final sentence if the sentence was (1) imposed in violation of the Constitution or laws of the United States; (2) the court was without jurisdiction to impose the sentence; (3) the sentence was in excess of the maximum authorized by law; or (4) the sentence is otherwise subject to collateral attack. § 2255(a). The petitioner bears the burden of proof under § 2255 and must demonstrate her right to relief by a preponderance of the evidence. United States v. Pollard, 602 F.Supp.2d 165, 168 (D.D.C. 2009). Relief under § 2255 is an extraordinary remedy in light of society's legitimate interest in the finality of judgments. United States v. Zakas, 793 F.Supp.2d 77, 79-80 (D.D.C. 2011). Thus, a collateral attack under § 2255 is neither a second chance at appeal nor is it a substitute for direct appeal; a defendant is therefore required to show " a good deal more than would be sufficient on a direct appeal" to gain collateral relief. United States v. Pollard, 959 F.2d 1011, 1020, 295 U.S. App. D.C. 7 (D.C. Cir. 1992); United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 166, 102 S.Ct. 1584, 71 L.Ed.2d 816 (1982) (" To obtain collateral relief[,] a prisoner must clear a significantly higher hurdle than would exist on direct appeal." ). A district court may deny a § 2255 motion without a hearing when " the motion and files and records of the case conclusively show that the prisoner is entitled to no relief." United States v. Morrison, 98 F.3d 619, 625, 321 U.S. App. D.C. 170 (D.C. Cir. 1996).
B. Cause & Prejudice Requirement for Claims Not Raised on Direct Appeal
Generally, claims not raised on direct appeal may not be raised on collateral review. Massaro v. United States, 538 U.S. 500, 504, 123 S.Ct. 1690, 155 L.Ed.2d 714 (2003). The procedural-default rule is neither a statutory nor a constitutional requirement, but it is a doctrine adhered to by the courts to conserve judicial resources and to respect the law's important interest in the finality of judgments. Id. If a defendant failed to contemporaneously object to a claimed trial error or if a defendant failed to raise the claim on direct review, the claim may be raised on collateral review only if the defendant can first demonstrate either that the defendant is " actually innocent" or that there is sufficient " cause" excusing her double procedural default as well as " actual prejudice" resulting from the errors of which she complains. United States v. Frady, 456 U.S. 152, 167-68, 102 S.Ct. 1584, 71 L.Ed.2d 816 (1982); United States v. Pettigrew, 346 F.3d 1139, 1144, 358 U.S. App. D.C. 164 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (citations omitted).
C. Sixth Amendment Right to a Jury Trial
The Sixth Amendment's right to a jury trial " gives a criminal defendant the right to demand that a jury find him guilty of all the elements of the crime with which he is charged." United States v. Gaudin, 515 U.S. 506, 511, 115 S.Ct. 2310, 132 L.Ed.2d 444 (1995). However, in criminal cases, as in civil cases, the jury does not have the power to determine pure questions of law and a court is " permitted to instruct the jury on the law and insist that the jury follow his instructions." See id. at 513 (citing Sparf v. United States, 156 U.S. 51, 105-06, 15 S.Ct. 273, 39 L.Ed. 343 (1895)). Prior to 1995, the
" unanimous verdict of the federal courts" was to consider " materiality" --even when it was an element of a charged crime--as a question of law for the court's determination rather than the jury's. United States v. Bridges, 717 F.2d 1444, 1448, 230 U.S. App. D.C. 387 (D.C. Cir. 1983); see also United States v. Paxson, 861 F.2d 730, 274 U.S. App. D.C. 71 (D.C. Cir. 1988) (rejecting a criminal defendant's Sixth Amendment challenge of a court's determination of materiality in his jury trial); Sinclair v. United States, 279 U.S. 263, 298, 49 S.Ct. 268, 73 L.Ed. 692 (1929) (" [T]he materiality of what is falsely sworn, when an element in the crime of perjury, is one for the court." ). However, in 1995, the Supreme Court disrupted that uniform practice in Gaudin by holding that the Sixth Amendment requires the issue of materiality to be determined by a jury when materiality is an element of the charged crime. Gaudin, 515 U.S. at 522-23. The Court found that because materiality requires some findings of fact, materiality is not a pure question of law and neither tradition nor stare decisis justified the continued application of an unconstitutional practice. Id. at 512-13, 518-23.
Gaudin was decided on June 19, 1995--two years after the D.C. Circuit remanded defendant's appeal but before the district court resentenced defendant in 1996. See Gaudin, 515 U.S. at 506; Dale, 991 F.2d at 859; Am. J. & Commitment Order (Resentencing), June 6, 1996. The Supreme Court has held that Gaudin applies retroactively when a defendant's case was " not yet final" at the time Gaudin was decided. Johnson v. United States, 520 U.S. 461, 467, 117 S.Ct. 1544, 137 L.Ed.2d 718 (1997). Because defendant was still awaiting resentencing when the Supreme Court decided Gaudin, defendant's case was " not yet final," and Gaudin applies to defendant's case.
A. Preservation of Claim for Collateral Review
Defendant claims, as the basis for her § 2255 Motion, a violation of her Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial due to the trial court's determination that materiality was a question of law to be determined by the court rather than a finding of fact to be determined by the jury.  Def.'s Mem. 1. However, the government claims that because defendant failed to preserve her claim at trial and on direct appeal, she must first establish the requisite " cause" and " prejudice" before the Court can properly entertain her Motion. Gov.'s Opp'n 5-6. Defendant argues that she properly preserved her claim at trial, claiming that " defendants did object during the conference
on jury instructions" to the trial court's " proposed explicit instruction that materiality had been proven" on the identified counts. Def.'s Mem. 12-13 (citing 7/13/90 Tr. at 3878-79). However, the defense did not object to the court's decision to determine materiality as a matter of law, Def.'s Mem. 13, but rather to the court's wording of the proposed instruction for the sole purpose of preventing the defendant from being prejudiced in the minds of the jury:
Mr. Spaeder [Defense Counsel]: Assuming that Your Honor were to . . . rule as a matter of law that the omissions charged in Counts 6 through 10 are material, it would be the defendants' position that in instructing the jury the language Your Honor should use is that the issue of materiality is one for the Court to decide, and you are not charged with making a decision on the issue of materiality in this case, without suggesting to the jury what Your Honor's ruling is with respect to materiality.
To tell the jury that you have determined as a matter of law that the omission were material, I think sends a very grave judicial signal to the jury that somehow the Court has cast its imprimatur on one of the essential elements of the offense . . . as long as as [sic] we can get a formulation which does not appear to tilt Your Honor's message to the jury one way or the other.
. . .
Obviously, the jury will not be asked to render a judgment on materiality.
Tr. 3878-80, July 13, 1990.
Because defendant " did not object to [the court's] withholding [of] the element of materiality from the jury," defendant did not preserve her current claim at trial. Fed. R. Crim. P. 30; see also Johnson, 520 U.S. at 465-66 (noting that Fed. R. Crim. P. 30 " is simply the embodiment of the 'familiar' principle that a right " 'may be forfeited in criminal as well as civil cases by the failure to make timely assertion of the right before a tribunal having jurisdiction to determine it" '" ) (citations omitted). Defendant also failed to raise her present claim on direct appeal. That failure alone requires defendant to satisfy the " cause and prejudice" or " actual innocence" standard in order for this court to consider defendant's collateral Motion.  Frady, 456 U.S at 167.
As defendant has not professed actual innocence, she must show both (1) " cause" excusing her double procedural default and (2) " actual prejudice" resulting from the errors of which she complains. Pettigrew, 346 F.3d at 1144. Defendant has failed to show either.
To establish " actual prejudice," defendant " must shoulder the burden of showing, not merely that the errors at [her] trial created a possibility of prejudice, but that they worked to [her] actual and substantial disadvantage, infecting [her] entire trial with error of constitutional dimensions." Pettigrew, 346 F.3d at 1144 (citing Frady, 456 U.S. at 170). Defendant must at least demonstrate that " there is a reasonable probability that, but for [the errors], the result of the proceeding would have been different." Id. (citing United States v. Dale, 140 F.3d 1054, 1056 n.3, 329 U.S. App. D.C. 335 (D.C. Cir. 1998) (quoting Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S 668, 694, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984)). The showing of prejudice required to overcome procedural default on collateral review " 'is significantly greater than that necessary' to establish plain error on direct review." Id. (citations omitted).
The facts of defendant's case are similar to the facts in Johnson. In Johnson, the defendant-appellant was convicted, before Gaudin was decided, of a crime of which materiality was an element and failed to object to the jury instructions that made materiality a question for the court rather than for the jury. 520 U.S. at 463. However, unlike the present case, the defendant-appellant in Johnson raised the Gaudin issue on direct appeal as a " plain error." Id. The Supreme Court, considering whether or not the jury instruction constituted " plain error," held that it did not because the " evidence supporting materiality was 'overwhelming'" and because the issue of materiality was " essentially uncontroverted at trial" and " remained so on appeal." Id. at 469-70 (citations omitted).  Though the standard for determining " prejudice" for entertaining collateral claims is different than the standard for plain error, the standard for determining prejudice in this context is a more stringent standard. Pettigrew, 346 F.3d at 1144-- 45 (citing Murray v. Carrier, 477 U.S. 478, 493-94, 106 S.Ct. 2639, 91 L.Ed.2d 397 (1984)); id. at 1145 n. 13 (" [A] prisoner must, at a minimum, satisfy all of the requirements of the plain error
standard in order to succeed in a collateral attack." ).
Here, each justification used by the Supreme Court to find a lack of " plain error" is present in defendant's case: the " evidence supporting materiality was 'overwhelming,'" and the issue of materiality was " essentially uncontroverted at trial" and " remained so on appeal," and defendant has " presented no plausible argument" that the statements for which she was convicted were not material. See Johnson, 520 U.S. at 469-70; see also Dale, 140 F.3d at 1057 (D.C. Circuit concluding the same thing with regard to one of defendant's codefendant's collateral challenge of the materiality determination). Defendant did not object to the issue of materiality at trial and did not raise the issue on direct appeal. Though the law in the D.C. Circuit was settled on the issue, such an objection was not so novel that defendant did not have the " tools to construct [her] constitutional challenge."  Engle v. Isaac, 456 U.S. 107, 132-34, 102 S.Ct. 1558, 71 L.Ed.2d 783 (1982) ( " Where the basis of a constitutional claim is available, and other defense counsel have perceived and litigated that claim, the demands of comity and finality counsel against labeling alleged unawareness of the objection as cause for a procedural default." ). Regarding the evidence of materiality at trial, defense counsel in the present case did not dispute proof of materiality at all and in fact stated: " Obviously, the jury will not be asked to render a judgment of materiality."  In Johnson, the defendant's counsel actually did. argue at trial that " the element of materiality has been insufficiently proven and . . . the Court ought to grant a judgment of acquittal; " yet the Supreme Court found that, despite defense counsel's statement, " [m]ateriality was essentially uncontroverted at trial." Id. at 470.
Additionally, the D.C. Circuit Court considered one of defendant's co-defendant's exact same Sixth Amendment collateral claim regarding the jury instruction on materiality and dismissed his claim for lack of prejudice without deciding the " cause" prong. United States v. Dale, 140 F.3d 1054, 1056-57, 329 U.S. App. D.C. 335 (D.C. Cir. 1998). The Circuit Court explained:
Dale has suggested no facts or theory to rebut the district judge's legal conclusion
that the charged nondisclosures were material to the Department's decision whether to grant clearance. . . . In the absence of any basis for finding Dale's misrepresentations were not material, we cannot say that the judge's failure to submit materiality to the jury " worked to [Dale's] actual and substantial disadvantage." The failure therefore was not prejudicial.
Defendant in the present case has also failed to provide the Court with " any basis" upon which to find that materiality was not established by " overwhelming evidence." See Gov.'s Opp'n 14. See generally Def.'s Mem. in Supp. of M. to Vacate Sentence, Oct. 21, 2002, ECF No. 139.
Thus, the Court finds that defendant has not proven the requisite prejudice for her collateral claims to be considered. Because defendant must prove both prejudice and cause in order to have her present claims considered, this Court does not need to determine whether or not defendant can show the requisite " cause." Finally, defendant's motion does not require a hearing, as her claim is procedurally barred because she has failed to show the requisite prejudice to overcome her procedural default. See Morrison, 98 F.3d at 625.
IV. CERTIFICATE OF APPEALABILITY
A petitioner must obtain a certificate of appealability before pursuing any appeal from a final order in § 2255 proceeding. See 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(1)(B). When the denial of a § 2255 motion is based on the merits of the claims, a district court should issue a certificate of appealability only when the appeal presents a " substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right." 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2). The petitioner is required to show that reasonable jurists could debate whether the issues should have been resolved differently or are " adequate to deserve encouragement to proceed further." Slack v. McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 483, 120 S.Ct. 1595, 146 L.Ed.2d 542 (2000) (quoting Barefoot v. Estelle, 463 U.S. 880, 893 n.4, 103 S.Ct. 3383, 77 L.Ed.2d 1090 (1983), superseded on other grounds by 28 U.S.C. § 2253(c)(2)); see also Mendez v. Knowles, 556 F.3d 757, 771 (9th Cir. 2009). Furthermore, the Supreme Court has stated:
When the district court denies a habeas petition on procedural grounds without reaching the prisoner's underlying constitutional claim, a [Certificate of Appealability] should issue when the prisoner shows, at least, that jurists of reason would find it debatable whether the petition states a valid claim of the denial of a constitutional right and that jurists of reason would find it debatable whether the district court was correct in its procedural ruling.
Slack, 529 U.S. at 484. Such a showing can be made when precedent clearly demonstrates that courts have come to divergent conclusions based on analogous facts. Because defendant has not made a substantial showing of the denial of a constitutional right, and because the Court finds that reasonable jurists would not debate the denial of petitioner's motion, the Court declines to issue a certificate of appealability. See, e.g., Dale, 140 F.3d at 1056-57 (D.C. Circuit finding same claim as defendant's procedurally barred due to lack of requisite prejudice based on facts analogous, if not the same, to defendant's case).
Defendant has failed to show the requisite prejudice for this court to properly consider the collateral claims in defendant's Motion on which defendant procedurally
defaulted. Thus, defendant's Motion is DENIED.
A separate Order consistent with this Memorandum Opinion shall issue this date.