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U.S. v. RAGIN, No. 14-7245

Decided: March 11, 2016

The Fourth Circuit vacated the judgment of conviction and sentence, entered direct entry of judgment in favor of Ragin on his § 2255 motion, and remanded for further proceedings.

In October 2004, Defendant, Nicholas Ragin was indicted along with six codefendants, with conspiracy and other substantive offenses related to their involvement in prostitution and drug rings.  The district court appointed Ragin an attorney after the indictment.  Ragin was indicted for conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States, including enticing and coercing individuals to travel in interstate commerce to engage in prostitution, interstate transportation of minors to engage in prostitution, and interstate wire transfer of funds in aid of racketeering enterprises, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 271; and conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base and to employ, hire, use, persuade, induce, entice and coerce minors in violation of 21 U.S.C. §§ 841, 846, and 861.  Ragin was found guilty on both counts.  On June 25, 2006, prior to sentencing, Ragin submitted a letter complaining about his court-appointed counsel.  He alleged that his counsel was asleep during his trial.  The district court sentenced Ragin to 360 months in prison and the Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction and sentence.

On October 1, 2010, Ragin moved to have has conviction and sentence vacated pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2255, raising allegations accusing his counsel of providing ineffective assistance of counsel.  The district court issued an order requesting an evidentiary hearing to be held to resolve Ragin’s ineffective assistance claim.  At the evidentiary hearing, several witness testified that Ragin’s counsel was asleep during parts of the trial, although some could not testify to which specific parts of the trial counsel was asleep during.  After the evidentiary hearing, the district court dismissed Ragin’s § 2255 motion.  The court held that the “requisite showing of prejudice for ineffective assistance of counsel varies depending on the evidence: a presumption of prejudice only applies ‘when the evidence shows counsel slept through a “substantial portion” of the defendant’s trial,’ whereas the ordinary standard requiring the defendant to demonstrate prejudice applies in all other cases involving isolated allegations that counsel was asleep.”  The district court held that Ragin’s counsel was not asleep for a “‘substantial portion’ of the trial.”  The district court then applied the Strickland standard that “a defendant must show that his counsel’s performance was deficient and prejudicial to prevail on a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.”  The district court concluded that Ragin had not demonstrated prejudice so his § 2255 motion was denied.

On appeal, the Court analyzed the Strickland test and its companion case Cronic.  The Court stated that generally a defendant must show counsel’s deficient performance and prejudice except in limited contexts, where prejudice is presumed.  Cronic identified three situations in which prejudice is presumed: (1) “when the defendant is completely denied counsel ‘at a critical stage of his trial’”; (2) “if there has been a constructive denial of counsel”; and (3) “‘when although counsel is available to assist the accused during trial, the likelihood that any lawyer, even a fully competent one, could provide effective assistance is so small that a presumption of prejudice is appropriate without inquiry into the actual conduct of the trial.’”  The Court relied on four other circuits’ conclusion that “prejudice must be presumed when counsel sleeps either through a ‘substantial portion of [a defendant’s] trial’ or at a critical time during the trial.”  The Court stated, “‘sleeping counsel is tantamount to no counsel at all.’”  After viewing the witness’s testimony, the Court concluded that Ragin’s counsel was asleep for a substantial portion of the trial.  The witnesses, especially one of the jurors, had the opportunity to see Ragin’s counsel because they were sitting directly across from him.  Ragin’s counsel also did not deny sleeping during the trial.  Since Ragin’s counsel was sleeping during the trial, Ragin was constructively denied counsel for substantial periods of the trial.  Therefore, prejudice was presumed and Ragin was denied effective assistance of counsel.

Accordingly, the Court vacated the judgment of conviction and sentence, entered direct entry of judgment in favor of Ragin on his § 2255 motion, and remanded for further proceedings.

Full Opinion

Alicia E. Morris