Argued: January 31, 2019
from the United States District Court for the Southern
District of West Virginia, at Charleston. Joseph R. Goodwin,
District Judge. (2:16-cr-00174-1)
Jonathan D. Byrne, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER,
Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant.
Loew, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Charleston, West
Virginia, for Appellee.
Christian M. Capece, Federal Public Defender, Lex A. Coleman,
Assistant Federal Public Defender, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL
PUBLIC DEFENDER, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellant.
Michael B. Stuart, United States Attorney, W. Clinton Carte,
Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES
ATTORNEY, Charleston, West Virginia, for Appellee.
WILKINSON, NIEMEYER, and KING, Circuit Judges.
Charles York Walker, Jr., appeals from drug and firearms
convictions and his resulting 120-month sentence in the
Southern District of West Virginia. After the district court
rejected a plea agreement under which Walker would have
pleaded guilty to a single count of possession with intent to
distribute heroin, Walker pleaded guilty - without a plea
agreement - to three drug offenses of a four-count
indictment. A jury trial was then conducted on the firearms
charge in the fourth count of the indictment and Walker was
found guilty thereof. On appeal, Walker contends that the
court erred in three respects: by rejecting his plea
agreement with the United States; in sustaining the
prosecution's peremptory strike of an African-American
woman from the jury; and in calculating his advisory
Guidelines range. As explained below, we affirm the criminal
early 2016, several law enforcement agencies in Kanawha
County, West Virginia, were investigating drug trafficking in
a task force called the Metropolitan Drug Enforcement Network
Team ("MDENT"). See J.A.S.
669-70. Between April and July 2016, MDENT used
confidential informants to conduct seven controlled buys of
heroin from Walker. On two of those occasions, the heroin
purchased from Walker contained the opioid
14, 2016, MDENT officers arrested Walker in Charleston, West
Virginia. They searched Walker's person in connection
with his arrest and recovered small amounts of marijuana,
cocaine, and heroin. That same day, the MDENT officers
executed a search warrant at an apartment in Charleston,
which informants had linked to Walker's drug business.
The officers who conducted the search found and seized, inter
alia, a .38-caliber Rossi handgun, a .45-caliber Kimber
handgun, five boxes of .45-caliber ammunition, a set of drug
scales, and two cell phones, one of which belonged to Walker.
The officers then obtained and executed a search warrant for
Walker's cell phone, from which they seized text messages
concerning drug activity, plus photos that depicted Walker
holding the .45-caliber Kimber pistol. Two days before
Walker's arrest, the MDENT officers learned from an
informant that Walker "pistol-whipped" a man named
Corns, who owed Walker for drugs. See J.A.S. 674.
After Walker's arrest, the officers interviewed Corns,
who admitted purchasing illegal drugs from Walker and said
that Walker had beaten him with a .38-caliber revolver.
September 13, 2016, a federal grand jury in Charleston
returned a six-count indictment against Walker. The
indictment alleged three counts of distributing heroin and
two counts of distributing fentanyl, in violation of 21
U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), plus a single charge of possessing
the two firearms as a convicted felon, in violation of 18
U.S.C. § 922(g)(1).
months after he was indicted, in January 2017, Walker entered
into a plea agreement with the United States. Pursuant
thereto, Walker agreed to plead guilty to a criminal
information that charged him with a single count of
possession with intent to distribute heroin, in contravention
of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). After the Government filed the
information, the district court conducted a plea hearing on
January 26, 2017. The court accepted Walker's guilty plea
but deferred acceptance of the plea agreement pending a
presentence report (the "PSR").
Probation Office prepared the PSR by April 2017, and the
parties thereafter submitted sentencing memoranda to the
district court. Based on the plea agreement, the PSR
recommended a base offense level of 12, the lowest possible
level for offenses involving heroin or fentanyl. The PSR also
recommended a 2-level enhancement for possession of a firearm
and a 2-level reduction for acceptance of responsibility, for
a total offense level of 12. The PSR determined that
Walker's criminal history category was IV, resulting in
an advisory Guidelines range of 21 to 27 months.
parties objected to aspects of the PSR. The Government sought
an additional enhancement because of Walker's attack on
Corns, and Walker challenged the proposed firearm
enhancement. The Government sought a sentence of between 24
and 30 months, while Walker requested a sentence of 12 months
plus a day.
26, 2017, the district court conducted another hearing and
rejected the plea agreement. As the court explained, the PSR
revealed a number of troubling facts. Walker, who was 38
years old, had several juvenile theft convictions and about
18 criminal convictions as an adult, and several of his
convictions related to drugs and firearms. The court
emphasized that, despite Walker's multiple convictions -
and myriad other charges not pursued to conviction - he had
consistently received lenient sentences and had served only
about eight years in prison. The court also reviewed and
emphasized Walker's violent history. For example, the PSR
revealed that Walker had pistol-whipped three different
persons (including Corns). Additionally, the court considered
a separate incident that resulted in a domestic battery
charge against Walker.
particular concern to the district court was the nature of
the drug offenses in the indictment, that is, trafficking in
heroin and fentanyl. The court underscored the terrible toll
that those drugs had exacted on the entire country - and on
West Virginia in particular - describing in detail the scale
and cost of the "heroin and opioid crisis."
See J.A. 86. Drawing on a November 2016 report from
the DEA, the court emphasized that an average of 91 Americans
died from opioid overdoses every day. Locally, it was
reported that 844 West Virginians died of drug overdoses in
recited the impact of the nation's opioid epidemic, the
district court also expounded on its concerns about excessive
plea bargaining in the federal courts. The court outlined
justifications for the extensive plea bargaining used in the
federal system and rejected as empirically unsound the common
rationale of "overburdened prosecutors and judges."
See J.A. 93. For example, the court observed that,
despite an increase in the number of federal prosecutors in
the past 40 years, the number of federal criminal trials had
significantly decreased during that period (from
approximately 8500 to 2000 trials per year). The court
Because the most common justifications for plea bargaining no
longer have any substantial heft, the counterweight of the
people's general interest in observing and participating
in their government requires close consideration of proffered
plea bargains in every case. I conclude that the courts
should reject a plea agreement upon finding that the plea
agreement is not in the public interest.
Id. at 96. The court then identified four factors
that should be used to assess whether a plea agreement is in
the public interest: (1) "the cultural context
surrounding the subject criminal conduct"; (2) "the
public's interest in participating in the adjudication of
the criminal conduct"; (3) the possibility of
"community catharsis" absent the transparency of a
jury trial; and (4) whether, in light of the PSR, it appeared
that the "motivation" for the plea agreement was
"to advance justice" or to "expediently avoid
trial." Id. at 97-98.
those factors to Walker's plea proceedings, the district
court determined that: (1) "the cultural context is a
rural state [West Virginia] deeply wounded by . . . heroin
and opioid addiction"; (2) "the public has a high
interest in [the] adjudication of heroin and opioid
crimes" because of the severity of the opioid crisis in
West Virginia; (3) a jury trial could permit the
"peaceful expression of community outrage" at
Walker's "vicious criminal acts"; and (4) the
principal motive behind Walker's plea agreement was
convenience. See J.A. 97-98. Consequently, the court
rejected the plea agreement reached between Walker and the
response, Walker's counsel acknowledged the district
court's view of Walker's case but challenged its
contention that a jury trial would be preferable to
resolution by the plea agreement. Walker's lawyer also
disputed the proposition that the plea agreement had been
reached "out of expedience," and emphasized what he
called the relatively minor drug quantities involved in
Walker's offenses. See J.A. 102-03. The lawyer
concluded by asking the court to "at least evaluate
reconsidering with respect to [Walker's] case."
Id. at 103. The court declined to alter its
position, however, and scheduled a hearing to permit Walker
to withdraw his guilty plea. Walker withdrew his guilty plea
two days later, on June 28, 2017.
months thereafter, in October 2017, the grand jury returned a
superseding indictment that charged Walker with two counts of
distributing heroin, one count of distributing fentanyl, and
a single charge of possessing firearms as a convicted felon.
In the course of addressing pretrial motions, the district
court denied Walker's motion to sever the firearms charge
from the drug charges. On November 7, 2017, Walker pleaded
guilty - without a plea agreement - to ...