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Williams v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

January 3, 2018

Cory L. Williams, Petitioner-Appellant,
v.
United States of America, Respondent-Appellee.

          Argued February 24, 2017

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois. No. 2:14-cv-02208-SLD - Sara Darrow, Judge.

          Before Easterbrook, Kanne, and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          Sykes, Circuit Judge.

         Cory 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.

         A year 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.

         We 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.

         I. Background

         On June 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.

         Cory 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 array.

         A grand 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.

         The 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, [1] in 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.

         Williams 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. The ...


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