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United States of America v. Maurice Outen

July 16, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge


I. Introduction

Defendant, Maurice Outen, has filed a counseled motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255 to vacate his conviction and sentence. Defendant was charged in a one-count indictment with possession with intent to distribute fifty grams and more of cocaine base and cocaine. In January 2010, a jury found him guilty. He was sentenced to 136 months of imprisonment. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal. United States v. Outen, 412 F. App'x 492 (3d Cir. 2011) (nonprecedential). The police had been alerted to Outen's drug-trafficking activities by Emrica Smalls, his former girlfriend, when she went to the hotel he had been staying at in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area.

Defendant's position is that Smalls was an emotionally unstable woman who was vindictive about the end of their relationship. So she purchased almost a half a kilogram of powder cocaine and drug-trafficking paraphernalia (like a digital scale and electric mixers) and planted this evidence in certain areas of the hotel where it would inculpate him. The claims raised in his 2255 motion mainly focus on his trial counsel's alleged ineffectiveness in marshaling the evidence and making the arguments that would have convinced the jury that she had set him up.

On April 18, 2012, we held a hearing on the motion. The parties filed post-hearing briefs, and we deal with the issues raised as follows.

II. Discussion

A. Failure to Investigate Witness Linda Wright Robinson Defendant claims trial counsel was ineffective in not investigating the testimony that Linda Wright Robinson could have provided. He asserts her testimony would have buttressed the defense that Smalls had set Defendant up.*fn1 Claims of ineffective assistance of counsel are governed by Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984). Strickland sets forth a two-prong test to establish ineffective assistance of counsel. First, counsel's performance must be deficient. Jacobs v. Horn, 395 F.3d 92, 102 (3d Cir. 2005) (citing Strickland).Second, counsel's deficient performance must have prejudiced the defense. Id. (quoting Strickland). A defendant must "show 'that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.'" Id. at 105 (quoting Strickland).

We provide some background on this claim. Robinson had become friends with Smalls when they were both serving time at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility. (Doc. 89, 2255 hearing transcript, p. 7). In a letter, Defendant notified counsel on August 7, 2009, before trial, that Robinson, identifying her as Linda Wright, could provide testimony favorable to the defense. (Id., p. 44).*fn2 Defendant wrote that Robinson could testify that Smalls had previously tried to do the "same thing" to him with the police [meaning set him up], but it had not worked before, "so this time she made sure it stuck." (2255 hearing, Govt. Ex. 7, p. 3). Defendant also told counsel the witness was at the Montgomery County prison.

In an affidavit, dated July 19, 2011, and attached to Defendant's memorandum in support of his 2255 motion, Robinson describes the previous incident. On September 12, 2008, Outen, Smalls, and Robinson were driving in a car together. Smalls quarreled with Outen, and Smalls got out of the car. She flagged down a police officer and told him Outen had drugs on him. The officer handcuffed Defendant and searched him for drugs. Finding none, the officer released him. (Doc. 79, Def.'s 2255 Mem, ECF p. 39).

The affidavit adds new information. Sometime in March or April of 2009, Smalls visited Robinson and said, "I know he is with another woman, and I am going to set his black ass up." Then a week after Defendant was arrested on the charge in the instant case, Smalls told Robinson, "I got him. I set his black ass up." (Id.). Robinson's testimony at the 2255 hearing materially affirmed these representations. (Doc. 89, pp. 8-10). Robinson knew that Defendant had been arrested but made no attempt to notify law enforcement or anyone associated with Defendant because no one told her she had to and the only thing she knew was that Defendant was in Harrisburg. (Id. pp. 17-18). Two weeks before executing her affidavit (about July 5, 2011), Defendant contacted her by phone about his case and she told him what she knew. (Doc. 79, ECF p. 40).

At the 2255 hearing, trial counsel testified that he did try to locate Robinson at the county prison but could not locate her there. (Doc. 89, pp. 26, 44). He has no independent recollection of whether he tried to locate her by other well-known means, such as by way of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections' website and its inmate locator system, but he is sure that he did. (Doc. 89, p. 48).*fn3 Since he had no other address for her, he made no further attempt to contact her.

"[C]counsel has a duty to make reasonable investigations or to make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary. In any ineffectiveness case, a particular decision not to investigate must be directly assessed for reasonableness in all the circumstances, applying a heavy measure of deference to counsel's judgments." Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 123 S.Ct. 2527, 156 L.Ed.2d 471 (2003) (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 691, 104 S.Ct. at 2066). Counsel's performance cannot be assessed based on hindsight. Strickland, supra, 466 U.S. at 690, 104 S.Ct. at 2066.

We do not believe that counsel's performance was deficient, as required by the first Strickland prong. Before trial, counsel would have known, at most, that Robinson would have testified to an incident where Smalls falsely accused Defendant of having drugs on his person. This information would have no relevance to a defense that Smalls had actually gathered and planted the evidence used against him. Counsel could therefore have made the decision not to investigate Robinson's testimony. In addition, counsel could not locate Robinson at the one address Defendant supplied him, the Montgomery County prison. Defendant provided the name Linda Wright and Robinson testified she was at the prison under that name, but we note that Defendant supplied us with no prison records indicating she was in fact there under the name Linda Wright.

The other piece of information Robinson had was far more relevant, that Smalls stated she had set Defendant up. However, counsel had no way of knowing about this evidence before trial, and Defendant does not attempt to show that he reasonably could have discovered it.*fn4 This information thus cannot be the basis of an ineffectiveness claim.

We therefore conclude that the claim based on the failure to investigate Linda Wright Robinson's testimony has no merit.

B. Counsel's Failure to Develop Evidence As to Emrica

Smalls's Emotional State

Defendant claims trial counsel was ineffective in failing to investigate evidence that Smalls: (1) was emotionally unstable; (2) had attempted suicide shortly before Defendant's arrest; and (3) had been released from a mental hospital just three weeks before Defendant's arrest. Defendant argues that this evidence would have supported his defense that Smalls's mental state was such that she was willing to frame him.

We see no prejudice to Defendant from counsel's failure to obtain evidence of her emotional instability and hospital records documenting her emotional state or an attempted suicide.*fn5 We agree with the government's argument that any evidence of this type would have actually worked against the theory that Smalls had set Defendant up because it would have indicated she was unable to accomplish such a plan. The government could have argued that attempted suicide meant that Smalls was a person who acted against herself, not a person who acted against others.

We note here that evidence presented at trial supported the inference that Smalls was capable of framing Defendant. The night auditor testified that Smalls kept repeatedly calling for Defendant, (Doc. 70, trial transcript, pp. 151-520), and on two occasions came to the hotel to see him. (Id., p 154). Smalls herself testified when called by the defense that she did not like Defendant because he had cheated on her. (Id., p. 165). She went so far as to go to his father's house in about April 2009, presented an excuse to search Defendant's room at the house, and discovered where he was in Harrisburg by finding a receipt for his hotel. (Id., pp. 173-74, 181-82, 192-93, 197-98). On May 14, 2009, she drove to Harrisburg from Philadelphia and admitted she started banging on his hotel room door because she believed he had a woman inside. (Id., p. 175). According to her, he tried to shove her away from the door, but she managed to get his car key because, as she testified, he had it in his hand when he came to the door. She intended to take the car (a rental) and leave him stranded because "he [was] a dog." (Id., p. 176). This evidence was sufficient to support the argument that Smalls was motivated to set Defendant up. Evidence showing that Smalls was suicidal would have worked against this evidence.

C. Counsel's Failure to Develop Evidence As ...

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