Jailed Gang Member’s Bid for Freedom Falls Short

     RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – A gang member sentenced to 12 years in prison after he tried to sell a .357 magnum used in the shooting of three rivals will not be getting out any time soon, a federal judge ruled.
     Carlos Guzman Cruz petitioned the Alexandria, Virginia Federal Court, claiming his trial counsel failed to tell him of plea deals offered by prosecutors and as a result, his sentence should be vacate.
     Cruz is a member of Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, a transnational criminal gang that originated in Los Angeles, and has now spread throughout the United States, and into Canada, Mexico and Central America.
     According to court documents, Cruz and two other men, Aguilar Orantes and Dennis Gil Bernardez, are members of a northern Virginia MS-13 chapter called Normandie Locos Salvatrucha. On October 6, 2008, the documents say, Orantes and Bernandez shot three former members of the “Crips,” a rival gang.
     The shooting took place in a Reston, Va. park, and was an act of revenge for an earlier altercation between members of the Crips and MS-13. Although no one died as a result of the shooting, two of three targets sustained serious injuries.
     Later that day, Cruz contacted a former MS-13 member who had turned FBI informant, in an effort
     to trade two guns, including the .357 that was used in the shooting, for one “clean” gun. The men arranged to dispose of the attack weapon by hiding it in an auto frame and shipping it out of the country, prosecutors said.
     On May 6, 2009, Cruz, Orantes and Bernardez were charged in a 15-count indictment. Cruz was charges with three counts: One count of illegal alien in possession of a firearm, and two counts of accessory after the fact. A jury convicted him of those charges on July 29, 2009, and he was sentenced to 144 months’ imprisonment with credit for time served.
     Since then, he’s filed an appeal of his conviction, a motion for a new trial, and a motion to vacate his sentence on the basis of inadequate representation. With the latest ruling by U.S. District Judge Liam O’Grady, Cruz has now lost all three.
     In his latest motion, Cruz claimed his original lawyer, Drewry Hutcheson, “‘Forced’ him to go to trial in spite of his insistent desire to plead guilty.” He insisted he repeatedly told Hutcheson of this desire, and that the attorney merely replied that he was “working on it.”
     At a hearing on the Cruz’s motion in February, Hutcheson said he spoke with his client 10 or 15 times before the trail, that he explained, in detail how strong the government’s case was against Cruz, and that he also walked Cruz through the various sentences he faced based on his plea and his level of cooperation with prosecutors at his co-defendants’ trial.
     “After hearing the evidence, it is clear to this Court that Petitioner was advised of his ability to plead guilty without having to cooperate with the government,” Judge O’Grady wrote. “Petitioner’s testimony – that his trial counsel failed to advise him of the standard option, available to all criminal defendants, of pleading guilty without an agreement to cooperate – is simply not credible.”
     “The Court finds trial counsel’s version of the facts, which has been corroborated by his handwritten notes as well as by a third party, much more convincing,” he continued. “The Court also finds that Petitioner’s ultimate decision not to plead guilty was based on his persistent belief that he was innocent of the conspiracy charge as well as his unwillingness to cooperate with the government.
     “Even at the hearing, Petitioner testified that he did not believe he was guilty of the conspiracy charge during the relevant period because he ‘didn’t know what conspiracy was.’ In light of the above, the Court concludes that Petitioner has failed to meet his burden to show that his trial counsel rendered objectively unreasonable assistance.”
     Representatives of Carlos Guzman Cruz were not available for comment.

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