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SCOW takes another case to review when Machner hearings should be granted

State v. Theophilous Ruffin, 2019AP1046-CR, petition for review of an unpublished court of appeals decision granted 9/17/21; case activity (including briefs)

Issue presented (from the State’s PFR)

Is Ruffin entitled to an evidentiary hearing based on his postconviction allegation that his trial counsel was deficient for not pursuing a theory of self-defense?

This is essentially a companion to State v. Spencer, a case in which the supreme court recently granted the state’s petition to review a court of appeals decision that ordered an evidentiary hearing under State v. Machner, 92 Wis. 2d 797, 285 N.W.2d 905 (Ct. App. 1979), on whether trial counsel was ineffective. As we noted in our post on that grant, the state made sky-is-falling claims about the effect of State v. Sholar, 2018 WI 53, 381 Wis. 2d 560, 912 N.W.2d 89, on the court of appeals, suggesting that Sholar destabilized the well-settled rules about when Machner hearings are required and would lead to a gusher of appellate court orders for Machner hearings.

The state’s petition in Spencer cited only a single unpublished court of appeals case in the three years since Sholar where the court of appeals reversed the denial of a Machner hearing and sent the case back to circuit court. That single case was … you guessed it, Ruffin’s! No surprise, then, that the court granted the state’s petition in this case, too. It no doubt helped that there was a dissenting judge in the court of appeals who concluded Ruffin wasn’t entitled to a Machner hearing.

Though the state doesn’t mention Sholar in its PFR in this case, its argument is basically the same as the one made in Spencer—that the court of appeals didn’t adhere to the established standard for reviewing whether the record as a whole conclusively shows the defendant isn’t entitled to relief. The state asserts the court of appeals focused too narrowly on Ruffin’s PCM, and not enough on the trial evidence. The state (like the dissenting court of appeals judge) argues the evidence shows Ruffin wasn’t entitled to a self defense instruction at all, so counsel couldn’t have been deficient in withdrawing the request for that instruction. The state also argues that even if the case doesn’t meet the statutory criteria for review—basically, a novel legal issue of  constitutional significance or statewide importance—the facts are so extreme the case cries out for discretionary error correction.

Whatever the reason—novel legal issue, or extreme facts—the state got its petition granted. Ruffin also filed a petition seeking review of the court of appeals’ rejection of his claims about instructional error, which we discussed in our post on the case. The court denied his petition.

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