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COA affirms conviction despite trial judge’s “vocal opinions” about COA’s prior decision granting plea withdrawal

State v. Matthew Curtis Stills, 2022AP1390-CR, 2/13/24, District 1 (not recommended for publication); case activity

This 2016 case out of Milwaukee County has a bit of a backstory and an unfortunate ending for Sills. In 2020, the court of appeals reversed Sills’ conviction based on a Bangert violation related to the circuit court’s failure to advise Sills of the maximum fine. Thereafter, Sills went to trial, was convicted, and was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment, compared to the 15 years he received after his original plea. This time around, Sills raises two issues on appeal: (1) that trial court’s objective bias violated his right to a fair trial and (2) that his trial attorney provided ineffective assistance of counsel. Unlike his first appeal, the court affirms rejects his claims and affirms his new conviction.

Sills’ argument that the trial court was objectively biased is based primarily on a plethora of comments the court made related to the court of appeals’ decision reversing Sills’ original conviction. Before trial, the court called the decision a “tortured and … incorrect interpretation of this entire matter.” The court also questioned the state about whether it could have charged Sills with an offense that carried a mandatory minimum sentence and in the context of a discussion regarding the admission of a forensic interview with the alleged victim, the court commented that “the only reason we’re here four years later is because of the defendant’s actions and because of the [c]ourt of [a]ppeals or it would have been automatically allowed” (since the alleged victim would have been under 12 years old). At sentencing, the court also explained that the court of appeals’ decision had “nothing to do directly with my sentence” and that Sills’ trial was based on “an absolute and total techincality” that “effectively” gave him a “second kick at the cat[.]”  Op., ¶¶28-30. (Emphasis added).

In response, the court of appeals drops a footnote:

We note that this court does not condone the trial court’s repeated negative commentary on Sills’s previous appeal that restored his trial right. Under the totality of the circumstances, the court conducted a fair trial. Although the court kept its comments from the jury, the court’s vocal opinions were unnecessary and resulted in this examination for bias.

Op., ¶32, n.8. But, the court rejects Sills’ claims that the trial court’s “commentary” on or related to the court of appeals’ prior decision in Sills’ case demonstrated objective bias or interferred with Sills’ right to a fair trial.

Next, the court rejects Sills’ ineffective assistance of counsel claims, which the trial court denied without a hearing, as “largely conclusory.” Op., ¶43.  While Sills faulted trial counsel for not obtaining a “firmer ruling” regarding some specific other acts evidence and then for asking him to “explain” the other acts evidence that came in, the court faults Sills for failing to show prejudice. Op., ¶45.

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