Jerome Williams v. United States (11th Cir. January 2021)

The Federal Docket

March 5, 2021

Sentencing – A defendant cannot meet their burden of establishing that the sentencing court relied on the residual clause of the ACCA by relying solely on circumstantial evidence regarding the legal landscape at the time of his sentencing if the caselaw at the time is ambiguous.

In 1998, Jerome Williams was convicted of robbing a bank with a firearm and received an enhanced sentence under the ACCA based on his three prior violent felony convictions. After the Supreme Court held that its decision in Johnson applied retroactively, Williams filed a motion for resentencing. The district court denied Williams’s motion.

On appeal, Williams argued that it was more likely than not that, in classifying his prior federal conviction for kidnapping as a “violent felony,” the sentencing court relied entirely on the residual clause of the ACCA, which Johnson had found to be unconstitutionally vague. As proof, Williams only presented evidence about the state of the law at the time he was sentenced. 

Williams’s argument was two-pronged. First, he claimed that the case law at the time of his sentencing made it unlikely the court would have reached its conclusion using the elements clause of the ACCA, which was the only other applicable clause. Second, he asserted that since several other courts at that time had found federal kidnapping to be violent under the residual clause of the ACCA, the sentencing court was likely to have done the same.

For his first argument, Williams primarily cited the 1992 decision in Boone, where the Eleventh Circuit recognized that, under the federal statute for kidnapping, the crime could be committed without the use of force if it was done “by inveiglement.” Under the categorical approach as it existed at the time, Williams reasoned that it would have been error for the sentencing court to rely on that clause rather than the residual clause.

Reviewing the case de novo, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial. The most on-point precedent at the time of his original sentencing was not Boone but Salemi. In Salemi, this court reversed a district court that had held federal kidnapping not to be a crime of violence under the elements clause of a sentencing guideline that was worded identically to the elements clause of the ACCA. The legal landscape of the time was therefore ambiguous and could not provide evidence sufficient for Williams to meet his burden of showing that the sentencing court had more likely than not relied upon the residual clause in making its decision.

The court did not respond at length to Williams’s second avenue of argument, noting only that the precedent of that time in other circuits was “equally ambiguous.” Since Williams was bringing only circumstantial evidence of his claim rather than any case-specific details, his evidence needed to be completely unambiguous in order to show proof of what the sentencing court did as a matter of historical fact.

Judge Jordan dissented, finding Boone more controlling than Salemi at the time and highlighting the fact that the preponderance standard required only that Williams tip “the scales just one little bit in his favor” to prevail.

Appeal from the Northern District of Alabama
Opinion by Brasher, joined by Lagoa
Dissent by Jordan

Click here to read the opinion

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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