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Witness Credibility Findings May Not Be Rejected Without New Hearing

Witness credibility is often key in resolving whether a federal prisoner is entitled to 28 U.S.C. 2255 relief. This is because 2255 claims typically pit the testimony of defendants against their former lawyers. However, since federal district judges are busy, magistrate judges are routinely tasked with making a report and recommendation about whether the defendant's 2255 motion should be granted or denied. When the lawyer and defendant have different stories, the magistrate judge must generally hold a hearing to decide who is telling the truth. Thus, 2255 hearings are typically all about witness credibility.

Victor Jackson was convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Jackson was sentenced to 360 months and appealed. The Seventh Circuit remanded, instructing the District Court to re-sentence Jackson under the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) and Dorsey v. United States, 567 U.S. 260, 264 (2012). On remand, the District Court re-sentenced Jackson to 200 months. His Guideline Range was 262 to 327 months.

Jackson filed a 28 U.S.C. 2255 motion arguing that Trial Counsel Bruce Ratliff misinformed him that he would not be eligible for a FSA reduction unless he went to trial. The District Court denied the 2255 motion, but the Seventh Circuit remanded for an evidentiary hearing to determine whether Ratliff misinformed Jackson. See e.g. Lafler v. Cooper, 132 S.Ct. 1376 (2012).

The Magistrate Judge observed Jackson and Ratliff testify at the evidentiary hearing. The Magistrate Judge found that Jackson was more credible than Ratliff and recommended granting 2255 relief. The District Court rejected the Magistrate Judge's witness credibility finding without observing Jackson and Ratliff testify. The District Court issued a Certificate of Appealability (COA) since the Magistrate Judge reached a different conclusion on the issue of witness credibility.

On appeal, Jackson argued the District Court erred in rejecting the Magistrate Judge's findings without observing Jackson and Ratliff testify. The Seventh Circuit, like the Fifth Circuit in Louis v. Blackburn, 630 F.2d 1105, 1109 (5th Cir. 1980), had "severe doubts about the constitutionality of the District Court's reassessment" of the Magistrate Judge's credibility findings without having seen and heard the witnesses. Accordingly, the Seventh Circuit held that the District Court effectively denied Jackson the evidentiary hearing ordered from the original 2255 appeal. The case was again remanded for further proceedings. Jackson v. United States, No. 16-2470 (7th Cir. 2017).

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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