A judge is a respected individual. Judges literally have power over life and death in their courtroom. They are required to hold both an ethical and moral code that sets them above a lay person (non-legal professional). In fact, the regulations governing this high standard state:
[A] judge’s conduct must be free from impropriety and the appearance of impropriety and that both his official and personal behavior be in accordance with the highest standard society can expect. The standard of conduct is higher than expected of lay people and also higher than that expected of attorneys. The ultimate standard must be conduct which constantly reaffirms fitness for the high responsibilities of judicial office, and judges must so comport themselves as to dignify the administration of justice and deserve the confidence and respect of the public.
United States Code Service, Title 28, Chapter 16, Section 351(a).
In reading this, one would probably believe that a judge uses their position to justly discern when something isn’t quite right in their courtroom. It would also probably lead a reader to believe that a judge would know when a person doesn’t understand something being conveyed to them, especially if that individual may be signing away their life in civil or criminal court.
In the case of United States v. Juan Mata-Soto, this might not have been the case.
In November of 2008, Juan and three other individuals were arrested for a Distribution of 50 Grams or More of Methamphetamine. At the time of his arrest, Juan was 20 years old. He admits he was guilty of the crime, he did sell methamphetamine, but maybe not as much as the prosecutor told the judge. His lawyer, John M. Duma, told him he was going to get at least 10 years in prison but could possibly receive as much as 21-and-a-half years. Before he plead guilty, Judge Kathryn H. Vratil told him he was facing, at best, 11 years-and-one-month and, at worst, 21 years and six months.
Understand, in the federal justice system of the United States, life means no chance of parole or early release for good behavior. A life sentence is just that: imprisonment until one dies.
The problem with Juan’s case is one that is all too common in the American Judicial System. Juan signed a plea and then, afterward, one of his co-defendants led the United States Attorney to believe that Juan was a much larger part of the conspiracy than he really was or that the United States Attorney ever suspected. The co-defendant had his own charges dismissed because of the questionable information he provided against Juan, and Juan was sentenced to life. Because Juan had already signed a plea, he gave up his right to question and rebut the statements his co-defendants later made. This was never explained to Juan before he signed the plea agreement, nor does it look like he would have understood such an explanation anyway due to his poor educational background.
When a judge holds a hearing to accept a defendant’s plea of guilty (known as a “Rule 11 Hearing“), it is the judge’s duty to discern whether the defendant understands their rights to trial by jury and whether they have the “capacity,” or mental ability to understand what they’re entering, to enter a contractual agreement (like a plea agreement). To determine this, the judge asks a series of questions to which the defendant normally just answers, “yes” by instruction of counsel. After answering “yes to all,” all courts will later assume that the defendant discussed any and all concerns, questions, or problems with their attorney and resolved them all ahead of time. Rule 11 hearings lead to a quick conviction without the expense of trial, so the United States Government prefers them.
In order to ensure a defendant is mentally competent to enter a plea agreement, the judge usually ascertains the defendant’s level of education, whether they are taking any mind-altering substances or medications, and whether they have fully reviewed their case and had the opportunity to discuss it with their attorney. During this part of questioning, it is the judge’s duty to discern if the defendant can comprehend the gravity of the agreement they are about to enter into.
Next, the judge asks the defendant questions regarding their interaction with their attorney and whether they are fully satisfied with counsel. This is followed by an explanation of the rights the defendant is signing away and an overview of what they are charged with.
If at any time during the Rule 11 hearing a judge believes the defendant does not understand what they are agreeing to, the judge has the moral, ethical, and legal obligation to stop the proceeding and instruct their attorney to help the defendant understand what is occurring.
Juan’s Rule 11 hearing didn’t go the way it’s supposed to. In Juan’s case, Judge Kathryn H. Vratil began by asking Juan his name and age. To his attorney’s surprise, Juan responded with a name and age unknown to his attorney. Then the judge verified that his level of education was only that of a first-grader, an education he received in Mexico. The script followed the normal course of proceedings — Judge Vratil asking whether Juan understood the nature of the charges against him, the possible result of pleading guilty, and what rights he was giving up by pleading guilty, and then asked whether he fully discussed the case with his attorney — and Juan answered each with the expected, “yes.”
Problem is, the entire discourse was in English, and Juan neither spoke nor understood much English at the time and had a very limited ability to comprehend even his own language (Spanish), and only when spoken, beyond a most basic level, fitting with someone who’d only completed first grade in Mexico. Unfortunately, this isn’t enough to stop a Rule 11 hearing because a lot of defendants are illiterate. The process depends on the competence of the appointed attorneys to adequately explain what the law means for the defendant. Such attorneys are expected to be involved in their client’s case, discuss their client’s desired goals, and know the client prior to allowing them to enter any plea (guilty, not guilty, or no contest).
By Juan’s attorney’s own admission — and the record in this case — Juan’s counsel never even took the time to learn his real name (only what the United States Attorney said his name was) or his real age. In fact, Attorney Duma only met with Juan five (5) times, and out of those times, only three (3) times was a translator was brought. The focus of all of those meetings was to attempt to convince Juan to make up a story of some imaginary crime against another defendant, a young lady whose only involvement was that of a romantic relationship with one of the conspirators, in the hopes of securing a smaller sentence, a personal ethical code Juan was unwilling to violate.
Another key role of a Rule 11 hearing focuses on the explanation to the defendant that they have a right to “subpoena” witnesses and the right to choose not to “self incriminate.” Judge Vratil did mention these important words, but made no effort to ensure Juan knew what these confusing words meant. Juan’s educational background left him at the mercy of his court-appointed attorney, an attorney who never even made the effort to learn Juan’s name.
Shockingly, however, Judge Vratil told Juan before he entered the plea of guilty that the sentence he faced was, at best, 135 months, and, at worst, 262 months in prison. While Judge Vratil did note that she could deviate from these guidelines if she so desired, she emphasized that 262 months, or 21-and-a-half years was the top of the sentence he was realistically facing.
Juan signed the plea. Then an unfortunate but all-too-common occurrence happened: Juan’s co-defendant wanted to go free, no matter the cost, and painted a picture that all but excluded the co-defendant from the crime and made Juan a crime-boss, despite the fact his significant lack of education and comprehension of language would never have allowed for such. In the legal world, this type of statement is known as a “proffer.” Outside of “legal-speak,” it is most commonly referred to as “flipping.”
In the majority of criminal cases today, defendants are allowed to give statements against their fellow co-conspirators. This helps the defendant who is “flipping” manipulate the government agents into seeing them as a low-end figure in a larger crime while “promoting” someone actually in the low-end to a top level position. Normally, both parties enter a plea agreement and the one who “flipped” receives a more lenient sentence than projected while the one who got flipped receives a much harsher sentence. In both cases, convictions are entered, normally. A common “joke” amongst the incarcerated is “My co-defendant didn’t like all the time he was gonna get, so he gave a lot of it to me.”
Juan’s case was even worse than the norm here. While Juan was signing his plea agreement, his co-defendant, the one who had actually sold the methamphetamine that started the whole conspiracy, was talking to the government. We can only assume his objective was to make the government believe that he was the victim of Juan’s actions and had somehow been forced to sell methamphetamines. Unfortunately, because of the lies and displaced responsibility, the United States Attorney dropped the charges against Juan’s co-defendant, setting him free and expunging any record of his involvement outside of the information used to significantly increase Juan’s sentence to life imprisonment. Sadly for Juan, he was never able to challenge any of these statements, as he had already signed a plea agreement and waived the right to any hearings to challenge such facts. The accusations were accepted, unrebutted, as true without any efforts to prove their veracity.
The series of unfortunate events for Juan didn’t end there. As a part of his plea agreement, he had waived any future argument challenging his conviction and/or sentence except for an argument based on the ineffectiveness of counsel. In such an argument, Juan would have had to prove that, but for the absolute derelict of duty of his counsel, he would have received a smaller sentence or would have gone to trial. Given all of the alleged facts thus far, one would assume that Juan would have an easy victory on appeal.
Because of that, Juan did the sensible thing: he asked his family to hire an attorney to help him appeal. He retained the services of Mr. Robin Martin, who then prepared an appeal for Juan and his remaining co-defendant. Mr. Martin filed the appeal for Juan, only to have it rejected procedurally due to Mr. Martin’s failure to sign the document as counsel representing Juan. Mr. Martin told Juan that this happens sometimes, sent him the appeal, and instructed him to sign it and send it to the court himself.
And there’s the catch. No argument in that appeal brief argued the ineffectiveness of Juan’s counsel, the only argument Juan was legally permitted to raise because of his waiver in the plea agreement. As such, the court dismissed the case, citing Juan’s waiver, as moot.
When Juan tried to contact Mr. Martin about this, he learned he and his family had been scammed, namely because of Juan’s low level of education and lack of English comprehension. Mr. Martin wasn’t an attorney at all and was not legally allowed to write or file legal briefs on behalf of another. He was engaging in what’s known as the “unauthorized practice of law.” Still, Juan tried to get Mr. Martin to admit his action so that he could hopefully persuade the court to give him another chance, but he later learned from the State BAR Association after reporting Mr. Martin that Mr. Martin had been the victim of a crime himself: he was murdered by his wife.
With no way to prove he’d been bamboozled by Mr. Martin, Juan was placed in limbo in court. Each appeal Juan files, no matter how meritorious, is rejected because he failed to argue ineffective assistance of counsel on his first appeal. It is highly doubtful that the founding fathers intended their system to permit such a blatant wrong in denying a merits-review based on such a technicality.
No one is arguing that Juan doesn’t deserve some time in prison for his actions. Even Juan thought the worst case scenario of 21-and-a-half years — at most — was reasonable enough for him to plead guilty. To Juan, a first time offender who was supposed to receive a recommendation for the low end of the guidelines because he was signing a plea, the chances of receiving 21-and-a-half years were slim. But for a man so misled by his counsel, the judge, and a scam artist to be in prison for the rest of his life because he was so deceived is troubling, at best, and should shock the conscience of any fair-minded American.
The average life expectancy in the United States is 78.69 years (Source World Bank). As of 2016 the average tax payer cost of housing a federal inmate is $31,977.65 a year (Source Federal Register). If Juan lives the base expectancy of 78.69 years he will have served 58.69 of those years as a federal inmate, costing tax payers a total sum of $1,876,768.28.
A full list of misconduct alleged in this case is as follows. If you wish to help by filing a request for an investigation, please contact us with the form below. Unfortunately the majority of the issues in this case are not issues of misconduct, but rather ineffectiveness of counsel.
1. Judge Kathryn H. Vratil allegedly mislead Juan Mata-Rodriguez into believing he would get a sentence of 11 years and one month to 21 years and six months.
2. Attorney John M. Duma allegedly failed to learn Juan Mata-Rodriguez’s name and age.
3. Attorney John M. Duma allegedly failed to visit Juan Mata-Rodriguez with a translator during each of his visits, effectively eliminating all possibility of communication between attorney and client.
4. Attorney John M. Duma allegedly failed to learn of possible enhancements that were then later used against Juan Mata-Rodriguez to give him a life sentence.
5. Attorney John M. Duma allegedly failed to request a Spanish version of the indictment against Juan Mata-Rodriguez for him to review. To this date Mr. Mata-Rodriguez does not have a copy of his the charges made against him in his native tongue.
6. Attorney John M. Duma allegedly failed to request a Spanish version of Juan Mata-Rodriguez’s Pre-Sentencing Report for him to review. To this date Mr. Mata-Rodriguez does not have a copy of his Pre-Sentencing Report in his native tongue.
7. Attorney John M. Duma allegedly failed to fully inform, discuss, and review Juan Mata-Rodriguez’s case with him.
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