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United States v. Morris

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 5, 2019

United States of America, Plaintiff,
v.
Michael Morris, Defendant.

          Laura M. Provinzino and Melinda A. Williams, Assistant United States Attorneys, United States Attorney's Office, counsel for Plaintiff.

          Robert D. Richman, Esq., counsel for Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          DONOVAN W. FRANK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         INTRODUCTION

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Michael Morris'(“Morris”) Motion for New Trial based on ineffective assistance of counsel.[1] (Doc. No. 1280 (“Motion”).) The United States of America (the “Government”) opposes the Motion. (Doc. No. 1433 (“Govt. Opp.”).) For the reasons set forth below, the Court respectfully denies Morris' Motion.

         BACKGROUND

         The Third Superseding Indictment in the above entitled matter charged Morris with Conspiracy to Commit Sex Trafficking (Count 1), Sex Trafficking by Use of Force, Threats of Force, Fraud, or Coercion (Count 2), Conspiracy to Commit Transportation to Engage in Prostitution (Count 3), Conspiracy to Engage in Money Laundering (Count 4), and Conspiracy to Use a Communication Facility to Promote Prostitution (Count 5). (See Doc. No. 830.) All five counts proceeded to trial by jury. On December 12, 2018, the jury returned its verdict, finding Morris guilty of all counts. (Doc. No. 997.) Morris moved for judgment of acquittal on December 21, 2018. (Doc. No. 1007.) The Court denied his motion for judgment of acquittal on February 20, 2019. (Doc. No. 1049.)

         In June 2019, Morris alleged that his trial counsel, Robert D. Sicoli (“Sicoli”), was ineffective. (See Doc. Nos. 1172-1174.) In light of Morris' allegations, Sicoli moved to withdraw as his counsel. (Doc. No. 1167.) The Court granted Sicoli's motion on July 2, 2019 and appointed new counsel. (Doc. No. 1203.) On September 17, 2019, the Court held an evidentiary hearing on Morris' allegations.[2] (Doc. No. 1350.)

         Morris is currently awaiting sentencing; however, sentencing has been postponed pending resolution of his current claim. Morris faces a guideline sentence range of 324 to 405 months with a 15-year mandatory minimum for Count 2.

         I. Defendant's Motion

         Morris now moves, pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 33(a), to vacate his convictions on Counts 2, 3, and 5 on the ground that Sicoli failed to communicate to Morris a favorable plea deal (“Deal”) that the Government had made. (Motion at 1.) Morris alleges that under the terms of the Deal, the Government agreed that Morris could plead guilty to Counts 1 and 4, and that the Government would dismiss the remaining counts. (Id.) Morris contends that had he been properly advised, he would have accepted the Deal and pleaded guilty, in part because the Deal eliminated the prospect of a mandatory minimum 15-year sentence on Count 2. (Id.) Accordingly, Morris asks the court to place him back in the position he would have been in “had he not been deprived of effective assistance of counsel and had been able to accept the [G]overnment's [Deal].”[3] (Id.)

         Morris alleges that he had every incentive to resolve his case by plea; however, “the stumbling block was Count 2, which called for a sentence of 15 years to life.” (Doc. No. 1281 (“First Morris Memo.”) at 1.) Morris argues that unless the Government agreed to dismiss Count 2, he had no choice but to stand trial. (Id.)

         II. Pro Se Filings

         In addition to his Pro se Motion, Morris filed a self-styled letter to the Court (Doc. No. 1172 (“Letter”), and a supporting affidavit (Doc. No. 1174 (“Morris Aff.”)). In his Letter, Morris stated that “a major issue [ ] came up shortly after my jury trial that ended on December 12, 2018.” (Letter at 2.) Morris alleged that during a conversation with Sicoli in December 2018, he learned about the Deal for the first time. (Id.) Morris also proclaimed his innocence with respect to various aspects of sex trafficking:

I believe that the trial testimony from Agents in the case for the government show I was not involved in ma-tac or any personal force, threats of force, or fraud or coercion, because there is no evidence that exists where I have. I honestly wish I knew that these ladies were being threatened because if I knew I would have tried to help them. If nothing else, I could have given them advice on what they should do. I always tried to help them with any of their wants or needs as was testified to at trial. There is no way that this was reasonably foreseeable to me.

(Letter at 3-4.) In his Affidavit, Morris reiterated his allegations with respect to the Deal, and asserted more generally that Sicoli failed to inform him about various aspects of the criminal justice system. (Morris Aff. ¶ 6.) Morris also maintained his innocence with respect to sex trafficking:

I had absolutely no knowledge that the women involved in this case had any pressure or force in the acts they were performing. I was aware that they transferred money to their home country for their families and other reasons, but not under any duress. I also had absolutely no meetings or meaningful discussions with anyone in regards to any type of debt or coercion. Because of the nature of the allegations, I understood that the jury would have potentially found me guilty because of the prostitution that was taking place, and not for the erroneous charges the government was attempting to prove.

(Morris Aff. ¶ 10.)

         III. ...


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