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4th Circuit lets decades old ineffective-assistance claim go forward

Two-thirds of the judges sitting on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, housed at the Lewis F. Powell Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Richmond, were nominated by Democratic presidents, tied for the largest such percentage among federal appellate circuits. (U.S. General Services Administration)

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, housed at the Lewis F. Powell Jr. U.S. Courthouse in Richmond. (U.S. General Services Administration)

A federal appeals court Tuesday cleared the way for a man to challenge his nearly 30-year-old guilty plea in Baltimore to attempted murder, saying it’s not too late for him to claim his attorney violated ethical rules by representing both him and his co-defendant – and then cutting a deal that freed the other guy.

In a 3-0 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Corey Lorenzo Woodfolk’s decades-old claim of ineffective assistance of counsel was not blocked by either a one-year federal statute of limitations or Maryland’s procedural restrictions. The court ordered a new hearing in vacating Senior U.S. District Judge J. Frederick Motz’s ruling that Woodfolk’s challenge was barred.

“For nearly 30 years, Woodfolk has contended that his guilty plea was procured by an attorney who served two masters, thereby betraying his duty of loyalty to Woodfolk in exchange for a favorable outcome for Woodfolk’s co-defendant,” Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote for the 4th Circuit. “No court, state or federal, has ever addressed the substance of these troubling allegations. Having found no time bar or adequate state procedural bar to preclude a review of the claim on its merits, we believe the time has come for a fair adjudication of Woodfolk’s claim.”

On June 14, 1987, Woodfolk and Cornelius Langley became involved in an altercation in a Baltimore parking lot where an off-duty police officer said he saw Woodfolk draw a gun and pull the trigger but the weapon did not fire, according to the 4th Circuit’s opinion.

Nine months later, attorney Michael Vogelstein told Woodfolk an agreement had been reached with the state under which he would plead guilty to attempted murder and using a handgun in a violent crime while Langley would provide a statement to the court inculpating Woodfolk and would not be prosecuted, Woodfolk alleges in his ineffective-assistance claim.

Woodfolk pleaded guilty on March 4, 1988, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with five suspended, for attempted murder and a concurrent sentence of five years, all suspended, on the handgun count and five years’ probation.

Woodfolk is due to get out of prison in July, having been convicted in 1994 for conspiracy to distribute heroin and initially sentenced to 50 years in prison. That conviction also included a violation of parole charge from his 1988 plea, for which he was sentenced to an additional three years in prison.

Woodfolk subsequently appealed the parole violation by challenging the underlying 1988 plea based on ineffective assistance of counsel.

Woodfolk challenged his attempted-murder conviction in July 1988, claiming – for the first time – ineffective assistance of counsel. He raised the argument again in 1995 and in a series of petitions that followed.

However, he lost in state and federal courts on statute of limitations and procedural grounds – until the case reached the 4th Circuit.

‘Falls far short’

In its published decision, the appeals court said the federal one-year statute of limitations did not affect Woodfolk’s ineffective-assistance challenge, as he filed his claim in U.S. District Court within 12 months of a state-court challenge to his conviction or sentence. The 4th Circuit also said Maryland’s procedural bar did not apply to Woodfolk’s allegation.

“While we do not contest the state courts’ authority to impose this bar, as a matter of state law, on Woodfolk and other petitioners, we conclude that the state falls far short of satisfying its burden to demonstrate that (the procedural bar) is applied to the vast majority of ineffective-assistance claims not raised on direct review from a guilty plea,” Gregory wrote. “The state’s failure to establish that the bar is regularly and consistently applied to claims analogous to Woodfolk’s claim renders the bar inadequate and, consequently, permits a federal habeas court to address his claim on ineffective assistance of counsel.”

In sending Woodfolk’s claim back for a hearing, the 4th Circuit provided guidance to the district court.

“Woodfolk’s allegations, if true, readily support his contention that his counsel labored under an actual conflict,” Gregory wrote. “However, those allegations are supported largely by Woodfolk’s own testimony and affidavit, which may be tempered by other evidence of record, such as the transcript of his 1988 guilty-plea proceeding and evidence shedding light upon the strength of the state’s case against him.”

The Maryland attorney general’s office said in a statement that it is reviewing the 4th Circuit’s decision.

Christopher B. Leach, Woodfolk’s appellate attorney, declined to comment on the court’s ruling. Leach is with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP in Washington, D.C.

A telephone message seeking comment from Vogelstein was not returned.

Senior Judge Andre M. Davis and Judge Robert B. King joined Gregory’s published opinion in Corey Lorenzo Woodfolk v. Maryland Secretary of Public Safety & Correctional Services, No. 15-6364.

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