United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Florence Division
Bryan Harwell, Chief United States District Judge.
criminal case is before the Court on Defendant James Latron
Sumter's motion to withdraw guilty plea. ECF No. 73. For
the reasons that follow, the Court denies Sumter's motion
to withdraw guilty plea.
16, 2018, a criminal complaint was filed charging Sumter with
conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute and to
distribute cocaine and heroin in violation of 21 U.S.C.
§ 846. ECF No. 3. On July 18, 2018, at Sumter's
initial appearance, the Court appointed attorney Nicholas
Lewis (“plea counsel”) to represent Sumter. ECF
August 15, 2018, a federal grand jury indicted Sumter in a
single-count indictment for conspiracy to possess with intent
to distribute and to distribute a quantity of cocaine and a
quantity of heroin with death and serious bodily injury
resulting from use of said substances, in violation of 21
U.S.C. §§ 841(a)(1), 841(b)(1)(C), and 846. ECF No.
26. The same day, the Government filed notice pursuant to 21
U.S.C. § 851 that Sumter was subject to enhanced
penalties based on a 2011 conviction for “Manufacture,
Possession of other Controlled Substance in Schedule I, II,
II, with Intent to Distribute.” ECF No. 30. Given the
2011 felony, if Sumter was found guilty of the offense
charged in the indictment, he faced mandatory life
imprisonment. ECF No. 28; 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C).
Government made three plea offers to Sumter. The first offer,
made on September 25, 2018, was based upon the mandatory life
sentence, but contained a cooperation provision allowing
Sumter the opportunity to earn time off his sentence. ECF No.
95 at 3. The second offer was based on a penalty of twenty
years to life imprisonment (the penalty applicable to the
crime on which Sumter was indicted if there was no previous
felony). Id. at 4; 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C).
Under the second offer, made November 27, 2018, the
Government agreed to withdraw the enhanced penalty applicable
under 21 U.S.C. § 851; the second offer also provided
Sumter the ability to earn time off his sentence by
cooperating. ECF No. 95 at 4. Sumter was to decide by the
pretrial conference on December 3, 2018, whether he wished to
plead guilty or go to trial. Id.
December 3, 2018 pretrial conference, the Court conducted a
hearing pursuant to Missouri. v. Frye, 566 U.S. 134
(2012), at which time Sumter indicated he understood his
options, and the Court extended by several days the deadline
for Sumter to decide whether to accept the second plea offer.
ECF No. 95-2. Following the Frye hearing, the
Government extended a third plea offer to Sumter. ECF No. 95
at 4. The third offer allowed Sumter to plead guilty and
receive a stipulated sentence in the range of 168-216 months
pursuant to Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(c)(1)(C). Id. Over
the next few days, plea counsel and the Government negotiated
changes to the second offer, including reserving a right for
Sumter to appeal the enhancement for serious bodily injury or
December 7, 2018, Sumter pled guilty to count one of the
indictment pursuant to a written plea agreement which took
the form of the revised second offer. ECF Nos. 95 at 5, 59,
60. Under the plea agreement, Sumter agreed to plead guilty
to count one of the indictment without the enhanced penalties
under 21 U.S.C. § 851; he was thus facing possible
imprisonment of twenty years to life. ECF No. 59. ¶ 1.
The plea agreement provided an opportunity for Sumter to earn
time off his sentence through cooperation and specifically
reserved a right for Sumter to appeal his sentence or raise a
post-conviction relief challenge based upon future changes in
the law regarding the enhancement for death or serious bodily
injury. Id. ¶¶ 9, 13.
December 7, 2018 hearing, the Court conducted a complete plea
colloquy under Fed. R. Crim. P. 11. The Court confirmed plea
counsel had explained to Sumter the charge against him, the
possible punishments, and Sumter's rights, that plea
counsel thought Sumter understood these things, and that plea
counsel felt the Government could produce sufficient evidence
to meet its burden of proof. ECF No. 95-3 at 5. Plea counsel
indicated no mental evaluation had been done for his client
and he had no doubts regarding his client's competence.
Id. at 5-6. The Court then placed Sumter under oath.
Id. at 6. The Court confirmed with Sumter that he
had no impairments impacting his ability to understand what
he was doing and he understood he was pleading guilty.
Id. at 7-8. The Court also confirmed Sumter was
fully satisfied with plea counsel's representation.
Id. at 8-9.
Court reviewed the sentencing guidelines, relevant conduct,
the Court's discretion to vary from the guidelines, and
the statutory sentencing factors under 18 U.S.C. §
3553(a). Id. at 9-11. The Court explained that
parole had been abolished, the basics of supervised release,
and the consequences of pleading guilty to a felony.
Id. at 12-13. The Court spoke about the rights
Sumter would have at trial and that Sumter was giving up
those rights by pleading guilty. Id. at 13-15.
Having reviewed all of that, the Court confirmed Sumter was
pleading guilty freely and voluntarily, was not being forced
to plead, and no one had promised him anything not in the
plea agreement to get him to plead guilty. Id. at
Court confirmed Sumter had received a copy of the indictment,
reviewed it with plea counsel, and told plea counsel
everything he needed to know about the case. Id. at
17. The Court reviewed the indictment and the elements of the
offense with Sumter; Sumter admitted to each of the elements
of the offense. Id. at 17-19. The Court also went
through the potential penalties for the offense; Sumter
stated he understood the possible penalties and had reviewed
them with plea counsel. Id. at 19-20. The Government
summarized the plea agreement and Sumter confirmed he had
reviewed the agreement, entered it freely and voluntarily,
and understood it. Id. at 20-26. The Government
withdrew the information it had filed pursuant to 21 U.S.C.
§ 851. Id. at 24.
Government provided a factual basis for the case.
Id. at 26-30. According to the Government, the
victim contacted a cooperating witness and asked him to help
her obtain $100 worth of heroin and cocaine which the witness
said he could do via an individual later identified as
Sumter. Id. at 27. The witness called and texted
Sumter regarding the drug deal and took the victim to a
location where Sumter provided $100 worth of heroin and
cocaine. Id. The victim used the drugs, subsequently
suffered an overdose, and died. Id. at 27-28. Sumter
was not present when the victim died; following the
victim's death, the cooperating witness disposed of the
victim's remains in a remote wooded area, destroyed her
cellphone, and took some of her personal effects to another
individual who burned them to destroy the evidence.
Id. at 28.
case were to proceed to trial, the Government advanced it
would provide a text message recovered from the witness's
phone; the message between the witness and Sumter detailed
the drug transaction and corroborated phone calls.
Id. at 28. The cooperating witness would also
testify that he had previously served as middleman in drug
transactions where he bought drugs from Sumter and then
provided the drugs to other individuals. Id. at
28-29. Several other witnesses would testify regarding their
drug activities with Sumter. One witness would testify that
in early 2017. he purchased heroin from Sumter, used the
heroin, and suffered an overdose leading to hospitalization.
Id. at 29.
the Government's summary of the facts, Sumter generally
agreed with the Government's summary of what he did,
admitted to the elements of the offense, and stated he was -
in fact - guilty of the offense. Id. at 30-31.
Sumter's sole objection to the Government's summary
was regarding the final potential witness who had purportedly
suffered an overdose in early 2017 after using heroin sold by
Sumter; Sumter said he knew nothing about that. Id.
Court found Sumter competent and capable of entering a plea,
found his plea was a knowing and voluntary plea with facts to
support each of the elements of the offense, and accepted
Sumter's guilty plea. Id. at 30-31.
in mid-January, 2019, Sumter filed a number of letters asking
to withdraw his guilty plea. ECF Nos. 62, 63, 65, 67, 96, 97,
98, 99, 100. On February 11, 2019, the Clerk of Court
docketed Sumter's pro se motion to substitute
attorney. ECF No. 69. On February 12, 2019, plea counsel
filed a motion to withdraw Sumter's guilty plea, ECF No.
73, and - upon Sumter's request - filed a motion to
substitute attorney, ECF No. 72.
February 19, 2019, the Magistrate Judge held a hearing on the
motions to substitute counsel. ECF No. 80. The Magistrate
Judge found plea counsel had not done anything wrong but
granted the motions to substitute counsel. ECF Nos. 80, 104
at 11-12. The Court then appointed attorney W. James
Hoffmeyer (“post-plea counsel”) to represent
Sumter. ECF No. 81.
April 18, 2019, the Government filed a response in opposition
to Sumter's motion to withdraw guilty plea. ECF No. 95.
On May 29, 2019, the Court held a hearing on Sumter's
motion to withdraw guilty plea. ECF No. 102. The Court heard
argument from the parties, admitted five exhibits,
took the ...