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Defense Attorney’s Conflict Not Enough to Undo Drug Conviction

Feb. 20, 2020, 10:50 PM

A man convicted and sentenced to 20 years for a drug conspiracy charge failed to convince the Eleventh Circuit on Thursday that he was adversely affected by his former defense attorney’s simultaneous representation of a government witness in a related matter.

Stephon Williams, who was charged on Nov. 12, 2013, and ultimately convicted of a federal narcotics conspiracy, was pursued by authorities after a plea deal with Curtis Donaldson, who helped operate a drug ring out of Georgia from the 1990s until 2012.

Following Donaldson’s deal and cooperation, prosecutors began arresting others involved in the conspiracy, charging Tyree Bennett in 2013. Bennett agreed to cooperate with the government to reduce his sentence, but that hope was ultimately dashed by a letter he sent to another defendant in an effort to secure favorable testimony in exchange for a monetary payment. Instead of sentencing relief, he was hit with an obstruction of justice enhancement.

Williams was indicted after Bennett along with other purported co-conspirators. The district court appointed Kim Minix, Bennett’s attorney in an appeal over his own sentence on the related conspiracy charge, to represent Williams on Nov. 20, 2013.

At Williams’ trial, more than a dozen witnesses were called, but Minix generally didn’t cross-examine those, such as Bennett, who didn’t implicate his client. Although Williams was implicated by several witnesses directly, he argued that his attorney’s refusal to cross-examine his fellow client doomed his case.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit found that, while Williams showed Minix had a conflict of interest, he failed to prove an “adverse effect” as required under the law. Minix had made an agreement with prosecutors regarding questions that might create a conflict, and created a strategy that involved not questioning Bennett.

The appeals court found that Minix could have cross-examined Bennett to benefit Williams, but added that the government couldn’t prove guilt based on Bennett’s testimony alone.

The appeals court also agreed with the district court that Williams had failed to establish a necessary “link” between Minix’s decision not to cross-examine Bennett and his conflict of interest.

“Without evidence directly contradicting Mr. Minix’s testimony, which the district court found credible, we cannot say that Mr. Williams established an adverse effect, and his conflict-of-interest claim must fail,” the panel wrote in the unpublished per curiam decision.

U.S. District Judge Paul C. Huck joined Circuit Judges Adalberto Jordan and Gerald Bard Tjoflat in the opinion.

Williams is represented by Strickland Webster LLC.

The case is United States v. Williams, 11th Cir., No. 15-12130, unpublished 2/20/20

To contact the reporter on this story: David McAfee in Los Angeles at dmcAfee@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rob Tricchinelli at rtricchinelli@bloomberglaw.com; Steven Patrick at spatrick@bloomberglaw.com

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