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United States v. Benson

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

August 20, 2014

United States of America, Plaintiff,
Mandel McDonald Benson, Defendant. Civil No. 13-2259(DSD)

Laura M. Provinzino, Andrew S. Dunne, James S. Alexander, Michelle E. Jones, Nathan P. Petterson, United States Attorney's Office, counsel for plaintiff.

Mandel McDonald Benson, #15384-041, pro se.


DAVID S. DOTY, District Judge.

This matter is before the court upon the pro se motion by defendant Mandel McDonald Benson to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. Based upon a review of the file, record and proceedings herein, and for the following reasons, the court denies the motion and denies a certificate of appealability.


On October 5, 2010, Benson was charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 922(g)(1) and 924(e)(1). Benson pleaded not guilty and proceeded to trial, where he was initially represented by Reynaldo Aligada. ECF No. 55, at 1:14-15. The trial commenced on January 18, 2011.

On the second day of trial, just before the government rested, Benson informed the court that he no longer wanted to be represented by Aligada. ECF No. 57, at 13:9-10. Benson requested to proceed pro se, and the government questioned Benson about his understanding of the rights he would give up by doing so. Id. at 26:10-16. Thereafter, Benson requested a different attorney be appointed to represent him. Id. at 33:16-17. The court denied both requests. Id. at 39:22-23. Benson then reiterated his request to have Aligada removed as his counsel and Aligada formally moved to withdraw, citing a breakdown in communication. Id. at 56:4-7. The court granted Aligada's motion.

On January 20, 2011, the court appointed Leon Trawick as substitute counsel for Benson and continued the trial to allow Trawick to prepare. See ECF No. 48. Trawick moved for a mistrial on February 2, 2011. ECF No. 52. During a status conference held on February 7, 2011, the court denied the motion. ECF No. 73, 35:24-36:2. The trial resumed on February 8, 2011, and Benson informed the court that he wished to proceed pro se with Trawick as his standby counsel. ECF No. 74, at 263:11-13. The court granted the motion to proceed pro se after ensuring that Benson was knowingly and voluntarily waiving his right to counsel. Id. at 277:1-9.

Benson proceeded pro se. The government rested and Benson then presented his case by calling several witnesses, including recalling several witnesses that had testified during the government's case-in-chief. On February 10, 2011, the jury found Benson guilty of being a felon in possession of a firearm. ECF No. 65. Benson also represented himself at the sentencing hearing, where the court found that he had three prior violent felony convictions for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act. ECF No. 117, at 50:19-25. The court sentenced Benson to 235 months imprisonment. Id. at 58:7-9.

Benson appealed his conviction and sentence to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Thereafter, Trawick moved to withdraw as appellate counsel, and the Eighth Circuit appointed Dean Grau to represent Benson on appeal. Grau filed an appellate brief, arguing that (1) the court erred in denying the motion to suppress DNA evidence, (2) Benson's waiver of his right to counsel was not knowing, voluntary and intelligent, (3) a mistrial was warranted and (4) the court failed to sufficiently explain its sentence under the sentencing factors of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a). Benson also submitted a pro se brief to the Eighth Circuit. On July 11, 2012, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the conviction and sentence. See United States v. Benson , 686 F.3d 498 (8th Cir. 2012). The Supreme Court denied Benson's petition for writ of certiorari on January 7, 2013. Benson v. United States , 133 S.Ct. 877 (2013). On August 16, 2013, Benson filed the instant motion under 28 U.S.C. § 2255.


Section 2255 provides a federal inmate with a limited opportunity to challenge the constitutionality, legality or jurisdictional basis of a sentence imposed by the court. See 28 U.S.C. § 2255. This collateral relief is an extraordinary remedy, reserved for violations of constitutional rights that could not have been raised on direct appeal. See United States v. Apfel , 97 F.3d 1074, 1076 (8th Cir. 1996). When considering a § 2255 motion, a court generally must hold an evidentiary hearing. See 28 U.S.C. § 2255(b). A hearing is not required, however, when "(1) the petitioner's allegations, accepted as true, would not entitle the petitioner to relief, or (2) the allegations cannot be accepted as true because they are contradicted by the record, inherently incredible, or conclusions rather than statements of fact." Sanders v. United States , 341 F.3d 720, 722 (8th Cir. 2003) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

Benson argues that relief under § 2255 is warranted based on (1) ineffective assistance of trial counsel, (2) ineffective assistance of appellate ...

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