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United States v. Shelton

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

November 2, 2018

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Plaintiff/Respondent,



         Federal prisoner James Matthew Shelton has filed a motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence. D.E. 71. In his motion, Shelton argues five grounds on which he submits he is being held in violation of the Constitution of the United States. The first three grounds claim ineffective assistance of his trial-level counsel, the fourth ground claims ineffective assistance of his appellate counsel, and the fifth ground alleges cumulative error. Shelton asks the Court to “Vacate and Remand for re-sentencing.” Id. at 12.

         Having reviewed Shelton's motion and memorandum, the government's response, and Shelton's reply in detail, and upon consideration of the record, the Court RECOMMENDS that Shelton's motion be denied. The Court further RECOMMENDS that no certificate of appealability be issued.


         In January 2016, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Shelton with three counts involving the sexual exploitation and enticement of minors. D.E. 1. In August 2016, Shelton pled guilty to Count 2 of the indictment, which charged him with using a means and facility of interstate commerce to knowingly persuade, induce, entice, and coerce an individual under the age of 18 to engage in sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense. Id. at 1-2; D.E. 31. Defendant also admitted and agreed to the forfeiture allegation contained in the indictment. D.E. 32 at 1.

         Based on Shelton's criminal history category and total offense level, his Guidelines range was 210-262 months. D.E. 58 at 4. The offense also carried a statutory minimum of ten years of imprisonment. Id. On January 10, 2017, District Judge Reeves sentenced Shelton to 262 months of imprisonment to be followed by a life term of supervised release. See D.E. 49 at 2, 3.

         Shelton appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, arguing that “the district court committed reversible error at sentencing when it failed to address Shelton personally in order to permit him to speak or present any information to mitigate his sentence, as required by Fed. R. Crim. P. 32(i)(4).” D.E. 71 at 2. The Sixth Circuit affirmed Shelton's sentence. D.E. 61. Shelton did not appeal to the United States Supreme Court, and he represents that he has not filed any other motions for post-conviction relief. See D.E. 71 at 2.


         In his motion, Shelton raises five grounds on which he claims he is entitled to relief. Each of the grounds asserts in some fashion an ineffective assistance of counsel argument.[1] Under the test outlined in Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984), Shelton must first show that his counsel's performance was deficient. “This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed the defendant by the Sixth Amendment.” Id. Second, Shelton must show that his counsel's deficient performance prejudiced his defense. “This requires showing that counsel's errors were so serious as to deprive the defendant of a fair trial, a trial whose result is reliable.” Id.

         Because Shelton pled guilty, he “must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's errors, he would not have pleaded guilty and would have insisted on going to trial.” Hill v. Lockhart, 474 U.S. 52, 59 (1985). Shelton bears the burden to prove his allegations by a preponderance of the evidence. See Pough v. United States, 442 F.3d 959, 964 (6th Cir. 2006). The Court recognizes that Shelton is proceeding pro se, without the assistance of an attorney, and thus construes his motion liberally. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Castro v. United States, 540 U.S. 375, 381-83 (2003); Franklin v. Rose, 765 F.2d 82, 85 (6th Cir. 1985) (per curiam).


         Shelton first claims that his trial-level counsel was ineffective for moving for a competency evaluation without adequately considering whether his mental condition warranted the evaluation or conferring with him, and for “misadvising him . . . as to the evaluation being for sentence mitigation purposes.” D.E. 71 at 4. He further claims that his trial-level counsel's stipulation to the competency report violated his Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Here, he contends that the stipulation prevented the report from being subjected to “adversarial testing” and that the report was “heavily relied upon by the court in determination of the sentence ultimately imposed.” Id.

         The government does not specifically dispute Shelton's factual assertion that his counsel failed to inform him that his counsel would be requesting a competency evaluation on his behalf. Thus, the Court will assume that Shelton's trial-level counsel did not inform him about the request for a competency evaluation. But, even with that fact viewed in Shelton's favor, the record establishes that it was not unreasonable for his trial-level counsel to have requested a competency evaluation based on mental-health concerns. In other words, Shelton has not shown that his counsel's request that he undergo a competency evaluation was deficient.

         The United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit addressed a similar argument by the defendant in United States v. Boigegrain, 155 F.3d 1181 (10th Cir. 1998). In that case, the defendant's attorney had requested that he undergo a competency evaluation over the defendant's objections. Boigegrain, 155 F.3d at 1187. On direct appeal from the district court's commitment order, the Tenth Circuit considered defendant's argument that “his lawyer, the public defender, abandoned his role as the defendant's advocate and therefore rendered ineffective assistance of counsel in raising the competency issue against the defendant's wishes.” Id. Upon review, that court found no Fifth or Sixth Amendment violation by defendant's counsel and held “that when a lawyer has reason to believe that her client may not be mentally competent to stand trial, she does not render ineffective assistance of counsel by making her concerns known to the court.” Id; see also Id. at 1188 (quoting American Bar Association Standards for Criminal Justice). Although not binding, the Court finds this holding to be persuasive.

         In this case, defense counsel's motion for a competency evaluation stated that he had “met with the Defendant, talked with the Defendant's mother, studied the bond report, and been made aware of the Defendant's long history of mental health issues dating back to his early, teenage years.” D.E. 13 at 1; see also D.E. 60 at 9 (“I filed the motion for the study [] because of his past history.”). Under the standard outlined in Boigegrain, defendant's trial-level counsel did not render ineffective assistance of counsel by presenting the mental-health concerns about his client to the Court, especially after his investigation revealed a lengthy history of such concerns. See United States v. Jackson, 179 Fed.Appx. 921, 933 (6th Cir. 2006) (noting that defense counsel “was discharging his ‘professional duty' as an officer of the court to raise the issue if counsel has a good faith doubt as to the defendant's competence”) (citing Boigegrain, 155 F.3d at 1187).

         Moreover, even if Shelton's counsel's actions were deficient by requesting a competency evaluation, Shelton has not shown that “there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Strickland, 466 U.S. at 694. Specifically, Shelton cannot show he was prejudiced by the competency report because his presentence investigation report, relied upon by District Judge Reeves at sentencing, also contained an extensive discussion of Shelton's mental-health issues. D.E. 52 at 13-15. To state it differently, although District Judge Reeves relied on Shelton's competency evaluation during his sentencing, the information contained in that report was the same in kind as that contained in Shelton's presentence investigation report. See D.E. 58 at 35 (discussing “mental health conditions that are referenced in the report and were thoroughly outlined in the competency evaluation performed previously by the Bureau of Prisons”).

         The presentence investigation report, including discussion of Shelton's mental and emotional health, would have been prepared even if no competency evaluation had been conducted. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 32(c)(1)(A), (d)(2)(A). Notably, Shelton does not identify any objection to any of the mental-health information in the presentence investigation report that he claims counsel should have raised. Thus, Shelton was not prejudiced by his counsel's request that he undergo a competency evaluation because District Judge Reeves would have been able to consider similar information bearing on Shelton's mental health in the presentence investigation report. See Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691 (“An error by counsel, even if professionally unreasonable, does not warrant setting aside the judgment of a criminal proceeding if the error had no effect on the judgment.”).

         Shelton also briefly argues that his trial-level counsel provided ineffective assistance by stipulating to the competency evaluation report. Here, he claims a violation of his Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. However, because Shelton has not developed this argument, the Court need not do so for him. And, the record indicates that Shelton agreed with his counsel's decision to stipulate to the report. See D.E. 59 at 4 (“But he's willing to allow the Court to make that finding just on the submission of the report. We have nothing to refute any of the information contained in there.”).

         Moreover, those issues aside, no Fifth Amendment issue arises when “the psychiatrist's findings [are] confined to the limited, neutral purpose of determining the defendant's competency to stand trial.” United States v. Thompson,462 Fed.Appx. 561, 564 (6th Cir. 2012) (citing Estelle v. Smith,451 U.S. 454, 465 (1981)). Shelton claims that the sanity evaluation that accompanied the forensic report as to competency prejudiced him as well, but he points to no evidence in support of that claim. He likewise has not demonstrated a Sixth Amendment violation occurred. Cf. Id. (“[T]he Sixth Amendment's right-to-counsel protection in this context at most requires that defense counsel be informed of the ‘nature and scope' of the evaluation and put ‘on notice' that he would have to anticipate the ...

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