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SCOW reverses court of appeals’ grant of a postconviction evidentiary hearing

State v. Theophilous Ruffin, 2022 WI 34, reversing an unpublished court of appeals decision; case activity (including briefs)

This case doesn’t break new ground or develop existing law. Instead, it reverses the court of appeals for not applying the standard a circuit applies when deciding whether to hold an evidentiary hearing on a postconviction motion that alleges ineffective assistance of trial counsel.

Ruffin was charged with mayhem and sexual assault causing injury based on a physical altercation with his partner, A.B. (¶¶6-12). His testimony at trial asserted facts raising potential defenses of accident or self defense. (¶¶13-16). Trial counsel initially asked the trial judge for a self defense instruction, but later withdrew that request and asked instead for an accident instruction. The trial court instructed the jury on the accident defense, but only on the mayhem charge. The court also erroneously instructed the jury on sexual assault by use of force rather than causing injury. (¶¶17-18 & n.10).

Ruffin filed a postconviction motion arguing for a new trial based on the instructional error on the sexual assault charge and the denial of an accident instruction on that charge. He also raised a claim that trial counsel was ineffective for withdrawing the request for a self defense instruction. The circuit court denied the motion without an evidentiary hearing on the ineffective claim. (¶¶19-20). The court of appeals affirmed on the first two issues, but ordered an evidentiary hearing on the ineffective claim. The state filed a PFR on the grant of an evidentiary hearing, while Ruffin filed a PFR on the instructional errors. (¶¶21-25). Only the state’s petition was granted, and the supreme court now reverses the court of appeals’ order for an evidentiary hearing.

The court of appeals held Ruffin was entitled to an evidentiary hearing on the IAC claim because, assuming that all facts raised in his postconviction motion are true, he provided “some evidence” that was sufficient to support the instruction. And that is the low bar for getting an instruction on self defense—low because the trial court doesn’t get to refuse the instruction because it thinks the evidence is weak, inconsistent, or not credible. State v. Stietz, 2017 WI 58, ¶¶16-17, 375 Wis. 2d 572, 895 N.W.2d 796. But in deciding whether a defendant gets an evidentiary hearing on a postconviction motion alleging IAC, the “well established” standard—which the court here takes the opportunity to restate and reaffirm (¶¶35-38)—requires the court to determine not only whether the motion on its face alleges sufficient material facts that, if true, would entitle the defendant to relief, but also whether the record as a whole conclusively demonstrates that the defendant is not entitled to relief.

The problem here, says the supreme court, is that the court of appeals failed to look at whether the record conclusively demonstrates Ruffin isn’t entitled to relief. (¶¶39-41). That matters here because, though a trial judge can’t refuse a self defense instruction because it finds the evidence weak or inconsistent, Ruffin doesn’t allege trial court error, but trial counsel error. Viewed through the stringent IAC prism and its attendant “record conclusively demonstrates” inquiry, Ruffin’s self defense claim must be judged against the evidence. When it is, it’s found wanting:

¶42     …[T]he law of self-defense allows the defendant to threaten or intentionally use force against another if (1) the defendant believed that there was an actual or imminent unlawful interference with the defendant’s person, (2) the defendant believed that the amount of force the defendant used or threatened to use was necessary to prevent or terminate the interference, and (3) the defendant’s beliefs were reasonable. Stietz, 375 Wis. 2d 572, ¶11. We agree with the State that no reasonable jury would find that Ruffin acted in self-defense.

¶43     In Ruffin’s telling, he and A.B. engaged in a verbal argument, and she tried to push him down the stairs. He testified that he responded by pushing her back into the room and onto the bed. As he pushed her onto the bed she tripped and grabbed Ruffin’s collar, dragging both of them onto the bed. Ruffin then testified that A.B. wrapped her legs around him and that “[a]s she did that all I know she’s pulling me toward her. I have no idea what she was trying to do so I’m trying to get her legs from around my waist so everything happened so fast.”

¶44     Even assuming that there was an unlawful interfrence with Ruffin’s person, there is no evidence from which a reasonable person could find that Ruffin applied an amount of force he reasonably believed was necessary to stop the interference. As Judge White wrote in dissent at the court of appeals, “It defies common sense that during a physical altercation between a pregnant woman and a man nearly a foot taller and more than one hundred pounds heavier than she, that there was a reasonable basis for Ruffin’s use of force.” Ruffin, No. 2019AP1046-CR, at ¶52 (White, J., concurring in part; dissenting in part). Indeed, the amount of force used here can only be described as heinous. There is no view of the evidence under which such a use of force can be “reasonable” given the size disparity between Ruffin and the victim, the alleged actions of the victim, and the extent of the victim’s injuries, even accepting Ruffin’s testimony.

The court also holds Ruffin’s testimony doesn’t show an intentional use of necessary force, which means he wasn’t entitled to a self defense instruction; thus, trial counsel was not deficient for withdrawing the request for the instruction. (¶¶45-47).

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