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United States v. Burnett

February 17, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Pratter, J.



Notwithstanding his guilty plea, Dennis Burnett either wants another chance to demonstrate his tenacity and tolerance for risk by fighting the serious Hobbs Act and gun charges levied against him, or he hopes to negotiate a more favorable plea agreement with the Government. Apparently, Mr. Burnett suspects he might have done better on July 14, 2009 when he elected, during the start of jury selection in his trial, to plead guilty and accept a "C-plea" pursuant to Rule 11 (c)(1)(C). The plea was the product of multiple proffer meetings and negotiations that had started some six months earlier; it secured for him a sentence of incarceration some seven years under the otherwise mandatory minimum prison time he was facing.

Now as he faces sentencing, Mr. Burnett moves to withdraw his guilty plea, arguing, on the basis of what is essentially a self-diagnosis of transitory incompetence (albeit a diagnosis that is retrospectively somewhat buttressed by the opinion an expert witness*fn1 ), that he was not competent to fully consider, weigh and make his choices on the day he entered the plea so that he could get the best result possible for himself. The Court rejects Mr. Burnett's argument and has denied his motion for the reasons discussed below.


Mr. Burnett has no automatic right to withdraw his guilty plea. United States v. Martinez, 785 F. 2d 111, 113 (3rd Cir. 1986). Indeed, given the solemn thoroughness required by the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure for the evaluation of the tendering and acceptance of a guilty plea,*fn2 it is understandable that a defendant such as Mr. Burnett may not lightly withdraw a guilty plea. United States v. Hyde, 520 U.S. 670, 676 (1997); Brady v. United States, 397 U.S. 742, 748 (1970); United States v. Jones, 336 F. 3d 245, 252 (3rd Cir. 2003).

Mr. Burnett bears the burden of establishing that there are valid grounds for withdrawing his guilty plea and "that burden is substantial." Jones, 336 F. 3d at 252. As part of that burden, Mr. Burnett must also present a persuasive reason why he took contradictory positions under oath at his guilty plea hearing, lest other defendants be tempted to tie up the criminal justice system with disingenuous, and then recanted, Rule 11 statements. See Blackledge v. Allison, 431 U.S. 63, 73-74 (1977); United States v. Jones, 979 F. 2d 317, 318 (3rd Cir. 1992).

To determine whether a defendant has met his substantial burden, the Court normally must weigh three factors: (1) whether the defendant asserts his innocence; (2) whether the Government would be prejudiced by the withdrawal; and (3) the strength of the reasons for seeking to withdraw the plea. United States v. Brown, 250 F. 3d 811, 815 (3rd Cir. 2001); United States v. Trott, 779 F.2d 912');">779 F. 2d 912, 915 (3rd Cir. 1985). "A shift in defense tactics, a change of mind, or the fear of punishment are not adequate reasons . . ." Brown, 250 F. 3d at 815; see also Jones, 979 F. 2d at 318; Masciola v. United States, 469 F. 2d 1057, 1058-59 (3rd Cir. 1972). A claim such as Mr. Burnett's, i.e., that he lacked the mental competency to enter a guilty plea, is analyzed under the third factor - - the strength of the reasons for seeking to withdraw the plea.

The legal standard for measuring a criminal defendant's competency to plead guilty is the same as the competency standard for standing trial. Godinez v. Moran, 509 U.S. 389, 399-400 (1993); Taylor v. Horn, 504 F. 3d 416, 430 (3rd Cir. 2007). Thus, the Court must consider whether the defendant "has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding" and whether the defendant possesses a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings against him. Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402, 402 (1960); Taylor, 504 F. 3d at 430.*fn3

The Court's review of the record in this case and serious, in-person evaluations of Mr. Burnett's performances in these proceedings convince the Court that Mr. Burnett firmly possessed - - and exercised - - the requisite rationality when he entered his guilty plea in this case.*fn4


While the key proceeding to examine in this matter certainly is Mr. Burnett's July 14, 2009 guilty plea hearing, Mr. Burnett's actions on that day - - be they evidence of his competence or not - - cannot be fully appreciated in a vacuum. Therefore, some context is appropriate.

Mr. Burnett and a co-defendant were indicted on December 16, 2008 by a federal grand jury's issuance of a second superceding indictment. Specifically, Mr. Burnett was charged with two Hobbs Act robberies and aiding and abetting. He was also accused in two other counts with using and carrying and aiding and abetting the use and carrying of a firearm during crimes of violence. Mr. Burnett had been arrested the prior month in North Carolina on the predecessors to these charges. According to what he later told Dr. Voskanian (the expert retained to consider his competence) Mr. Burnett began to experience trouble sleeping when he was arrested. Motion Hrg. 1/28/10 N.T.19. Mr. Burnett arrived at the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia on December 19, 2008, and he met with his first court-appointed counsel, David Rudenstein, on December 23, 2008. Reportedly, Mr. Rudenstein recommended that Mr. Burnett favorably consider negotiating a plea agreement as early as that initial meeting.

On January 12, 2009, Mr. Burnett, accompanied by Mr. Rudenstein, went to his first, lengthy proffer meeting with the Government. He fully understood the purpose of the meeting. From all accounts Mr. Burnett was an active and willing participant in the proffer meeting. In February 2009 Mr. Burnett himself wrote and sent a letter to the Acting United States Attorney professing remorse for his misconduct, eagerness to be helpful to the Government and interest in making a deal. Mr. Burnett participated in a second proffer meeting with the Government on March 27, 2009*fn5 during which, according to the Government, having been presented with a cooperation guilty plea agreement, Mr. Burnett "expressed some concern about having to plead guilty to two ...

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