June 8, 2022 – A defendant must present more than conclusory allegations to be entitled to an evidentiary hearing on a motion claiming ineffective assistance of counsel, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has unanimously ruled.
In State. Ruffin, 2022 WI 34 (May 26, 2022), the supreme court held that a defendant claiming that his lawyer was ineffective because she withdrew a request for a self-defense instruction was not entitled to a hearing, because his testimony showed that his actions didn’t meet the elements of the defense.
Early Morning Assault
In December 2015, the Milwaukee County District Attorney charged Theophilous Ruffin with one count of second degree sexual assault and one count of mayhem, after an incident at the apartment Ruffin shared with his partner A.B. and the couple’s six-month-old son.
Jeff M. Brown is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by
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At Ruffin’s trial, A.B. testified that Ruffin kicked her and woke her up one morning at 3 a.m. to tell her that the baby was crying.
The couple argued while A.B., a petite woman who was five months pregnant with the couple’s child, fixed a bottle for their son.
A.B. testified that after she told Ruffin that she was going to leave and attempted to move past him, he picked her up and tossed her on the bed.
A.B. testified that Ruffin kneeled over her and pinned her to the bed by placing his left arm across her face. A.B. testified that Ruffin shoved his right hand into her vagina and ripped and pulled his hand out three times.
Ruffin, who stands 6’4” and weighs 300 pounds, testified that after he used his foot to wake A.B., she hit him and tried to push him down the stairs.
Ruffin said that when he pushed A.B. onto the bed, she grabbed his collar and both of them fell on the bed.
Ruffin testified that he braced himself with one hand to avoid falling on A.B.’s stomach, to protect the unborn baby. A.B. wrapped her legs around his waist, Ruffin said.
Under cross examination, Ruffin admitted that he was pushing in the area of A.B.’s genitals in an effort to free himself from her legs.
He testified that he wasn’t using force and was “gently” trying to remove A.B.’s legs from around him so that he could leave.
It took surgery to repair and re-attach two-and-a-half inches of A.B.’s genital tissue.
Ruffin’s lawyer asked the circuit court to give a jury instruction on self-defense and the defense of others.
But the lawyer withdrew the request shortly after making it, saying that “I’m not sure [the defense] really fits this situation.”
The jury convicted Ruffin on the sexual assault charge but acquitted him on the mayhem charge.
Ruffin filed a post-conviction motion. Among other things, Ruffin claimed that his lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel by withdrawing the request for a self-defense instruction.
The circuit court denied Ruffin’s motion without a hearing, denying all his claims. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part.
The court of appeals held that Ruffin had alleged sufficient facts regarding his ineffective assistance of counsel claim to be entitled to a Machner hearing addressing that claim.
Absence of Inquiry
In her opinion for the majority, Justice Ann Walsh Bradley explained that a defendant is entitled to a Machner hearing when his or her motion alleges sufficient facts which, if true, would entitle him or her to relief.
If the motion does not raise sufficient facts, or the record demonstrates conclusively that the defendant is not entitled to relief, A.W. Bradley noted, the circuit court has discretion to grant the hearing.
The court of appeals was correct in concluding that Ruffin’s motion raised sufficient facts that, if true, would entitle him to relief on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim, Justice A.W. Bradley noted.
But the court of appeals failed to ask whether the record demonstrated conclusively that Ruffin was not entitled to relief, A.W. Bradley explained.
The results of that inquiry, A.W. Bradley wrote, conclusively demonstrated that Ruffin was not entitled to relief on his ineffective assistance of counsel claim.
Elements of Self-Defense
Justice A.W. Bradley explained that under Wisconsin law, the self-defense defense applies where:
the defendant believed there was an actual or imminent unlawful interference; with his or her person; and
the defendant believed that the amount of force used or threatened was necessary to prevent or end the interference; and
the defendant’s beliefs were reasonable.
A court must instruct a jury on self-defense when a reasonable jury could find that a prudent person in the defendant’s position, under the circumstances existing at the time of the incident, could believe that he or she was acting in self-defense.
Even if A.B. had unlawfully interfered with Ruffin, Justice A.W. Bradley explained, no reasonable person could find that Ruffin had applied an amount of force that he reasonably believed was necessary to stop the interference.
“Indeed, the amount of force used here can only be described as heinous,” A.W. Bradley wrote.
“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.”
Elements Not Met
Justice A.W. Bradley pointed out that Ruffin’s testimony didn’t establish that his use of force against A.B. was intentional and necessary: Ruffin testified only that he was only pushing in the area A.B.’s genitals, and also testified he was “gently” attempting to remove A.B.’s legs from around his body.
“This is entirely inconsistent with an intentional use of force of the magnitude employed here,” A.W. Bradley wrote.
“With no testimony that his use of force was intentional and necessary, Ruffin’s self-defense argument was bound to fail even if the circuit court had given the instruction he requested.”
Consequently, Justice A.W. Bradley explained, Ruffin’s lawyer had not provided ineffective assistance of counsel by withdrawing her request for the self-defense instruction.