Habeas relief granted in non-capital Maryland case on the ground of ineffective assistance of counsel related to a plea offer.
Posted on: 6/26/2013 07:04:42 AM by Peoples

On May 1, 2013, District Court Judge James Bredar of the District of Maryland issued a Memorandum and Order finding that state prisoner James Alan Ross, who pleaded guilty to four counts of first degree assault, was entitled to habeas relief on his claim that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance in regard to a plea offer. Ross v. Wolfe, ___ F.Supp.2d ___, 2013 WL 1831313 (D. Md. May 1, 2013). The district court found that trial counsel had lied to Ross in order to persuade him to accept a plea bargain and this ineffectiveness rendered the resulting guilty plea involuntary. Specifically, trial counsel affirmatively misled Ross as to what sentence the prosecutor expected Ross to receive and how it was to be executed, i.e., in prison or at least in part at a treatment facility operated by the Division of Corrections. In fact, trial counsel had no idea whether the prosecutor had any expectation at all or what that expectation was. Equally misleading was trial counsel’s advice about the sentence he expected Ross to receive as it impliedly rested on a rational basis found later not to exist. According to the district court,

the first aspect is more egregious because a criminal defendant, informed that a prosecutor expects a particular sentence to be imposed, is likely to conclude that a prosecutor would only have such an expectation in certain circumstances, such as, if the prosecutor intended to act consistently with that expectation, thus suggesting to the defendant that a deal had been reached on what the prosecutor would argue at a later sentencing proceeding. Or, if the prosecutor expects a certain sentence to be imposed, then presumably, regardless of whether a deal had been made as to what he intended to advocate at the time of sentencing, his expectation would be a product of his experience and the known record of the sentencing judge in similar cases.

As to prejudice, the district court found the evidence "unrefuted that Ross would not have pleaded guilty if he had thought he would wind up with the lengthy prison sentence [70 years] he received following his plea." And the record showed that going to trial would have been a rational choice given his age and the availability of a voluntary intoxication defense. 

The district court next concluded that 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d) did not bar relief in this case. The post-conviction court had accepted that the documentary evidence concerning the plea established that Ross believed that the agreement would result in incarceration for something less then ten years. Nevertheless, the post-conviction court found that Ross had received effective assistance from his attorney and that his guilty plea was intelligent and voluntary. Given that the state court’s factual findings actually supported Ross’ claim, the state post-conviction court’s decision rejecting his claim was objectively unreasonable. (The district court later set forth further reasons why trial counsel’s performance was deficient and why Ross reasonably relied on counsel’s misleading representations.) And because the state court never ruled on the prejudice component of the claim, no deference was owed the state on that point.