United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Peoria Division
WILLIAM M. WATTS, Petitioner,
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Respondent.
E. Shadid, Chief United States District Judge
the Court are the Petitioner, William Watts', pro
se Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus pursuant to 28
U.S.C. § 2255 (D. 1),  his Memorandum of Law in Support
(D. 2), the Respondent, the United States of America's,
Response (D. 13), and the Petitioner's Reply (D. 17). The
Court held an evidentiary hearing on March 21, 2018, where
the Petitioner was represented by appointed counsel. (See the
Court's March 21, 2018 Text Order); (D. 20). For the
reasons set forth below, the Petitioner's § 2255
Motion is DENIED and the Court declines to issue a
certificate of appealability. This matter is now terminated.
face of overwhelming evidence against him for conspiracy
charges involving at least 280 grams of crack cocaine under
21 U.S.C. §§ 846, 841(a)(1), the Petitioner plead
guilty, pursuant to a Rule 11(c)(1)(A) and (B) written plea
agreement. (Cr. D. 144). At sentencing, he received 20
years' imprisonment. (D. Cr. 174). Prior to accepting a
plea, he had multiple attorneys represent him. (Cr. D. 71);
(Cr. D. 85); (Cr. D. 101). Ultimately, Chandra Justice was
appointed as his counsel during the events at issue here.
(See the Court's January 9, 2014 Minute Entry). As the
Court discussed before concluding the March 21, 2018
evidentiary hearing, the Petitioner had regular interactions
with the Court prior to entering his guilty plea and
demonstrated that he would never hesitate to share directly
with the Court what was on his mind. See e.g. (Cr.
D. 108); (Cr. D. 206).
the overwhelming evidence against the Petitioner-beyond law
enforcement's controlled buys, testimony from multiple
co-defendants, and video and audio surveillance of his
criminal activities-was his own statements to the Government
after his arrest. Before entering his guilty plea, he made
self-incriminating statements in two proffer interviews. The
Government could use those statements against him as a result
of his inconsistent testimony in a third proffer interview.
(Cr. D. 126). Without a plea, the Petitioner risked receiving
a mandatory life sentence if convicted at trial. Under the
terms of his plea, however, the parties agreed that the
Petitioner could seek a sentence below the advisory guideline
range, so long as the sentence he sought was not less than
the mandatory minimum-20 years' imprisonment. (Cr. D. 144
at pg. 9). The Government agreed to recommend a sentence no
higher than the low end of the advisory guideline range and
use only one of the Petitioner's prior felony drug
convictions, rather than both, to enhance his sentence.
Id. at pg. 10. A presentence report was ordered. The
sentencing guideline calculation was 262-327 months with the
mandatory minimum being twenty years, instead of life, due to
only one prior felony drug conviction being factored in. (Cr.
D. 166 at pg. 23). The guilty plea also included a waiver of
his right to appeal or collaterally attack his conviction,
unless he challenged the conditions directly related to his
waiver. Id. at pp. 4-5; 16.
sentencing, the Petitioner orally informed the Court that he
wanted to withdraw his guilty plea. For the first time, he
alleged that he was misled into believing that two of his
co-conspirators, Marcus Sullivan and Matthew Sullivan, had
agreed to cooperate with the Government. (Cr. D. 206 at pg.
10). Given that the Petitioner never moved to withdraw his
guilty plea, this Court proceeded with the hearing and
imposed a 20-year sentence, the mandatory minimum. (Cr. D.
174). In the process, this Court noted that the Petitioner
made deliberate decisions in the wake of his arrest and
consistently “directed” proceedings
intentionally. (Cr. D. 206 at pp. 33-34).
his waiver, the Petitioner appealed his conviction.
United States v. Watts, Case No. 14-2564, January
23, 2015. His appointed counsel could not find any
non-frivolous argument and filed a motion to withdraw,
pursuant to Anders v. California, 386 U.S. 738, 744
(1967). The Petitioner opposed the motion, arguing, inter
alia, that his attorney misled him by falsely stating
that the Sullivans were cooperating with the Government. In
disposing of his appeal in short order, the Seventh Circuit
stated, in relevant part, that:
…it matters not whether the coconspirators who Watts
believed to be cooperating with the government really
intended to testify against him; a defendant has no right to
know the identity of the government's witnesses before
trial, and neither will a defendant's ignorance about the
strength of the government's evidence prevent him from
entering a voluntary guilty plea that's supported by an
adequate factual basis.
No. 14-2564 at pg. 2 (citations omitted).
October 2016, the Petitioner moved pursuant to 28 U.S.C.
§ 2255 to have his sentence vacated, set aside, or
corrected. (D. 1). Given his collateral attack waiver, the
first claim that must be addressed by the Court is whether
his counsel was ineffective in negotiating his plea
agreement. Hurlow v. United States, 726 F.3d 958,
967 (7th Cir. 2013). If he cannot succeed on this argument,
he has waived his remaining claims. See Solano v. United
States, 812 F.3d 573, 577 (7th Cir. 2016) (“The
appeal waiver stands or falls with the plea
agreement.”) (citing United States v. Behrman,
235 F.3d 1049, 1051 (7th Cir. 2000)). In order to establish
that his trial counsel was ineffective, the Petitioner must
demonstrate that (1) trial counsel performed deficiently and
(2) he was prejudiced as a result. Strickland v.
Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687 (1984).
Petitioner alleges his trial counsel was deficient in telling
him that the Sullivans were cooperating with the Government
when they were not. (D. 1). But for this error, he claims, he
would not have accepted the Government's guilty plea.
Id. The only evidence of this allegation is the
Petitioner's self-serving statements. Standing in stark
contrast to his claim is trial counsel's statements to
the contrary (D. 13-1 at pp. 15-19) and the vast majority of
the record before the Court.
put, trial counsel's version of the events at issue is
more credible than the Petitioner's. The record
demonstrates that neither of the Sullivans were listed as
cooperating witnesses by the Government and that Matthew
Sullivan plead guilty after the Petitioner. (Cr. D. 143). It
is unlikely that trial counsel would have fabricated any
facts in order to induce the Petitioner to plead guilty.
Pleading guilty was objectively reasonable under the
circumstances. There is also nothing suggesting that trial
counsel had a personal incentive or inclination to evade a
trial. On the contrary, at the guilty plea hearing she stated
in open court that she was willing to proceed to trial if the
Petitioner so desired. (Cr. D. 205 at pg. 5). Given the
record before the Court, the Petitioner's mere accusation
that he was coerced into entering his guilty plea is
even if the Court were to presume that trial counsel's
performance was deficient, the Petitioner's claim still
fails. In order to succeed, he must further prove that but
for counsel's error, he would not have plead guilty and
instead would have proceeded to trial. Long v. United
States, 847 F.3d 916, 922-23 (7th Cir. 2017). The
Petitioner's allegations are insufficient; he “must
go further and present objective evidence that a reasonable
probability exists that he would have taken that step.”
Id; United States v. Cieslowski, 410 F.3d
353, 359 (7th Cir. 2005) (quoting Berkey v. United
States, 318 F.3d 768, 772 (7th Cir. 2003)).
in the record suggests that the Petitioner would have
proceeded to trial, at the risk of receiving a mandatory life
sentence, with overwhelming evidence implicating him. He
affirmed in open court that the Government could prove his
guilt. (Cr. D. 205 at pp. 19-23). The strength of the
Government's case was also buttressed by the
self-incriminating statements the Petitioner made during his
first two proffer interviews. He has put forth no evidence
that he would have risked a life sentence at trial in lieu of
the plea agreement. Under the plea, he was given the
opportunity to receive a much lower sentence (i.e.
262-327 months) or a mandatory minimum of 20 years
imprisonment. He received the latter. The Petition (D. 1) is
without merit and is DENIED.
Court further notes that Rule 11(a) of the Rules Governing
§ 2255 Proceedings directs district courts to either
issue or deny a certificate of appealability when entering a
final order adverse to the applicant. To obtain a certificate
of appealability, a petitioner must make “a substantial
showing of the denial of a constitutional right.” 28
U.S.C § 2253(c)(2). “Where a district court has
rejected the constitutional claims on the merits, the showing
required to satisfy § 2253(c) is straightforward: The
petitioner must demonstrate that reasonable jurists would
find the district court's assessment of the
constitutional claims debatable or wrong.” Slack v.
McDaniel, 529 U.S. 473, 484 (2000). Given the facts of