APPEALS FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF MASSACHUSETTS. Hon. Richard G. Stearns, U.S. District Judge.
Robert S. Sinsheimer, with whom Lauren Thomas and Sinsheimer & Associates were on brief, for appellant.
Dina Michael Chaitowitz, Assistant United States Attorney, with whom Carmen M. Ortiz, United States Attorney, was on brief, for appellee.
Before Lynch, Chief Judge, Selya and Kayatta, Circuit Judges.
SELYA, Circuit Judge.
This is the second in a matched set of bookend cases. In the earlier case, we rejected the appeal of Larry Wilkins to set aside his conviction and sentence because of a notorious scandal that shook public
confidence in a Massachusetts state testing laboratory. See
Wilkins v. United States (Wilkins II), 754 F.3d 24, at *1 (1st Cir. 2014) [No. 13-1637].
This time around, the appellant is Wilkins's accomplice, Ronald Merritt. Although the appellant enjoys a more lenient standard of review, we conclude that the court below did not abuse its discretion in refusing to allow him to withdraw his guilty plea. We also conclude that the appellant's sentence is substantively reasonable.
These appeals arise out of the same fateful transaction that we described in Wilkins II. We outline the structure of this transaction. On April 23, 2011, an undercover police officer posing as a customer in search of a fix approached the appellant in a Boston neighborhood reputed to be a haven for drug dealers. The appellant agreed to make the sale and, after receiving payment, crossed the street, gave the cash to his supplier (Wilkins), and returned to give the undercover officer a bag of what appeared to be crack cocaine. These events are described in greater detail in Wilkins II, 754 F.3d at 26-27, at *10, and we assume the reader's familiarity with that opinion.
Wilkins and the appellant were jointly indicted for possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute. See 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). After initially maintaining his innocence, the appellant entered a straight guilty plea (that is, a guilty plea unaccompanied by a written plea agreement). The government, however, made clear that it would recommend a below-the-range sentence.
At the change-of-plea hearing, the government's version of events prominently featured the fact that the substance involved in the street corner transaction was crack cocaine. The appellant admitted the truth of that account. The district court accepted the guilty plea and scheduled the disposition hearing for September 7, 2012.
Roughly a week before the scheduled sentencing date, news broke of problems associated with Annie Dookhan, a chemist at the William A. Hinton State Laboratory Institute. See Wilkins II, 754F.3d at 26-27, at *3. Because Dookhan was the chemist who had certified that the substance trafficked in the appellant's case was crack cocaine, the appellant's counsel told the sentencing court that the news (which at that point was limited to reports that Dookhan had breached laboratory protocols) would likely be the basis of a future effort to rescind his plea. Despite this foreshadowing, the court and the parties agreed to proceed with sentencing, reserving to the appellant the right to move to withdraw his plea at a later date. The court then imposed an 84-month term of immurement, which was appealed.
In the ensuing weeks, a state police investigation revealed the full extent of Dookhan's perfidy, including her deliberate contamination of certain samples and her certification of others without chemical testing. Although no evidence linked any of these pernicious practices directly to the appellant's case, he nonetheless moved to withdraw his plea. See Fed. R. Crim. P. 11(d)(2)(B).
The district court heard arguments on this motion in tandem with arguments on Wilkins's petition to set aside his conviction and sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255. In an omnibus rescript, the court denied relief to both men. See
United States v. Wilkins (Wilkins I), 943 F.Supp.2d 248, 259 (D. Mass. 2013). Pertinently, the ...