Cory L. Williams, Petitioner-Appellant,
United States of America, Respondent-Appellee.
February 24, 2017
from the United States District Court for the Central
District of Illinois. No. 2:14-cv-02208-SLD - Sara
Easterbrook, Kanne, and Sykes, Circuit Judges.
Williams was charged with two counts of Hobbs Act robbery, 18
U.S.C. § 1952(a); one count of bank robbery,
id. § 2113(a), (d); and three counts of
brandishing a firearm in furtherance of those crimes,
id. § 924(c). On the § 924(c) counts
alone, he faced a statutory minimum of 57 years in prison,
the equivalent of a mandatory life sentence. The government
offered a favorable plea deal that promised to reduce his
sentencing exposure by more than 39 years. After sending the
terms to Williams's attorney, the prosecutor emailed the
proposal to Judge McCuskey pursuant to the judge's
standard practice. The judge replied by email, telling the
parties that the deal was "exceedingly fair" and
"[o]nly a fool would refuse [it]." Williams took
the deal and pleaded guilty. The judge sentenced him to 18
years in prison in accordance with the agreement.
later Williams moved to set aside his sentence under 28
U.S.C. § 2255. As relevant here, he claimed that the
judge impermissibly participated in plea negotiations in
violation of Rule 11(c)(1) of the Federal Rules of Criminal
Procedure and the Due Process Clause. He also alleged a
deprivation of his Sixth Amendment right to effective
representation based on his lawyer's failure to raise the
Rule 11(c)(1) violation and request the judge's recusal.
A newly assigned judge denied the motion without a hearing.
affirm. Rule 11(c)(1) flatly forbids any judicial
participation in plea negotiations, but the violation in this
case was harmless. Williams insists that he would not have
taken the plea deal but for the judge's email, but that
claim is not remotely plausible. The government's case
was rock solid, and the plea deal removed the risk of a
mandatory life sentence and otherwise substantially reduced
Williams's prison exposure. His attorney's failure to
raise the Rule 11(c)(1) violation and request the judge's
recusal was likewise harmless.
20 and 29, 2011, two motels in Champaign, Illinois, were
robbed at gunpoint. Each crime followed the same modus
operandi: the robber entered the motel lobby, lifted his
sweatshirt to flash a handgun tucked in his waistband, and
demanded that the clerk hand over the contents of the cash
register. A month later a gunman wearing black clothing and a
white mask robbed a bank in nearby Savoy, Illinois, taking
more than $20, 000 in cash.
Williams was eventually identified as the robber. He was
assisted in the offenses by two women, one of whom cooperated
with law enforcement and confirmed Williams's role. In
addition to the cooperator's statement, law enforcement
had significant additional evidence identifying Williams as
the robber. The police found the black clothing, white mask,
and revolver used in the Savoy robbery in some bushes near
the bank. This physical evidence was covered in
Williams's fingerprints and DNA. Finally, the victims of
the two motel robberies identified Williams from a photo
jury returned an indictment charging Williams with two counts
of Hobbs Act robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. §
1952(a), one count of bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C.
§ 2113(a) and (d), and three counts of brandishing a
firearm during a robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. §
924(c). The § 924(c) charges alone carried a statutory
minimum penalty of 57 years in prison. See 18 U.S.C.
§ 924(c)(1)(A)(ii), (C)(i), and (D)(ii) (requiring 7
years in prison on the first count and a consecutive 25-year
term for each subsequent count). The upshot was that
Williams, then 24 years old, faced what was essentially a
mandatory life sentence on the § 924(c) counts plus
whatever additional prison time the judge might impose for
the three robberies.
case was assigned to Judge McCuskey, and the government
eventually offered Williams a highly favorable plea deal. The
prosecutor agreed to drop two of the § 924(c) charges
and recommend a total sentence of 18 years- 11 years for the
three robberies plus the mandatory 7-year term on the single
§ 924(c) count. Williams's attorney ad- vised him of
the proposed deal on July 3, 2013. On that same day,
accordance with Judge McCuskey's standing procedure, the
prosecutor emailed the proposed plea agreement to the judge
for his review, copying the assigned magistrate judge and
defense counsel on the email. Judge McCuskey responded by
email the next day, writing:
I concur with the disposition, which is exceedingly fair to
the defendant. Obviously, if he is convicted at trial the
defendant will be sentenced to the equivalent of a life
sentence. Only a fool would refuse this plea agreement. ... I
have placed the plea agreement with my initials on [the
magistrate judge's] desk. While I will be flying to
Washington DC on Monday, please E-Mail me a report of what
happens before [the magistrate judge]. I am fully ready to
try the case to a jury if the defendant wishes to proceed
with a jury trial.
agreed to the deal, and a change-of-plea hearing was
scheduled for July 8 before the magistrate judge. When
Williams arrived at the courthouse to plead guilty, his
lawyer showed him the judge's email for the first time.
Once the hearing was underway, Williams testified under oath
that he understood the plea agreement, was voluntarily
pleading guilty and was in fact guilty of the crimes, and
that he was satisfied with his attorney's representation.