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Laughrin v. Clements

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

October 18, 2016

MARC CLEMENTS, Warden, Fox Lake Correctional Institution, Respondent.



         Matthew Laughrin is a Wisconsin prisoner representing himself. He brings this petition for a writ of habeas corpus under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, alleging ineffective assistance of trial counsel.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The underlying facts of Laughrin's case are as follows:

Laughrin was charged with numerous counts concerning the tragic death of fifteen-year-old M.K., who died from a drug overdose at Laughrin's home. Laughrin was a drug dealer; M.K. and a friend had come to his house looking to get high. Laughrin sold the girls marijuana, which they smoked at his house. He then gave M.K. a Suboxone pill, which she ingested. After M.K. took the Suboxone pill, neither Laughrin nor M.K.'s friend could revive her. Laughrin responded by taking M.K. from his house to her friend's house and leaving M.K.-unconscious-in the snow in the front yard. Laughrin then drove off, and shortly thereafter M.K. was pronounced dead.

State v. Laughrin, No. 2011AP1600-CR, 2012 WL 2094392, ¶ 2 (Wis. Ct. App. June 12, 2012). Laughrin pled guilty to second-degree reckless homicide, possession of THC (marijuana) with intent to deliver, and possession of a non-narcotic controlled substance (Suboxone) with intent to deliver.

         Before sentencing, Laughrin moved to withdraw his plea on the basis of newly discovered evidence, citing newly acquired expert testimony (then in the form of a report) from Dr. Jeffrey Junig that death from Suboxone is rare. Junig's report stated that Suboxone only presents a risk of death when taken by someone who (1) is not tolerant to opioids and (2) has taken other respiratory depressants, such as a benzodiazepine, to which the person is also not tolerant. The report stated that both were true of M.K. and that other factors, such as her sleep position, may have exacerbated the respiratory depression caused by the drugs she took and contributed to her death. The report characterized M.K.'s “tragic death” as “far from predictable” and the result of “a confluence of several unfortunate events.” Id. ¶¶ 6-7. Laughrin argued that Junig's report cast doubt on whether he created a substantial risk of death or great bodily harm to M.K. by giving her Suboxone and whether he was aware of the risk, both of which the state must show to prove second-degree reckless homicide in Wisconsin. See Wis. Stat. §§ 939.24(1), 940.06. The trial court held a hearing and denied Laughrin's motion to withdraw his plea, finding that Junig's report was “not new evidence, but rather a new theory that utilized information Laughrin already had in his possession” when he pled guilty. Laughrin, 2012 WL 2094392, ¶ 8.

         After sentencing, Laughrin again moved to withdraw his plea. He alleged that trial counsel, Robin Shellow, provided ineffective assistance at the plea stage by failing to properly investigate and counsel him as to the properties of Suboxone before he pled guilty. He further alleged that Shellow provided ineffective assistance of counsel as to his presentencing motion to withdraw his guilty plea by failing to either (1) raise her own ineffectiveness as a basis for allowing him to withdraw his plea or (2) withdraw as counsel so as to allow him to raise her ineffectiveness himself. The trial court denied Laughrin's motion without a hearing. Laughrin appealed, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals affirmed, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied review.

         II. ANALYSIS

         Laughrin filed this petition for a writ of habeas corpus, presenting the same claims that he raised on direct appeal to the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. Most of his claims-e.g., that he should have been permitted to withdraw his guilty plea based on new evidence and that the trial court should have held an evidentiary hearing on his postconviction motion-were argued and decided there on the basis of state law. Claims based on state law are not cognizable on federal habeas review. See 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). However, because Laughrin brings this petition pro se, I must give his claims a liberal construction. Perruquet v. Briley, 390 F.3d 505, 512 (7th Cir. 2004). I find that Laughrin has presented cognizable claims for federal habeas relief based on ineffective assistance of trial counsel and will consider the same alleged errors he raised in the state courts.

         To establish ineffective assistance of counsel, a petitioner must show that his lawyer performed deficiently and that he suffered prejudice as a result. Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 687-94 (1984). To establish deficient performance, a petitioner must demonstrate that his lawyer's representation fell below an objective standard of reasonableness as measured by prevailing professional norms. Id. at 687. “This requires showing that counsel made errors so serious that counsel was not functioning as the ‘counsel' guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.” Id. To establish prejudice, “[t]he defendant must show that there is a reasonable probability that, but for counsel's unprofessional errors, the result of the proceeding would have been different.” Id. at 694.

         The Wisconsin Court of Appeals adjudicated Laughrin's ineffective-assistance claims on the merits, so my review of Laughrin's claims is limited. Federal courts cannot grant habeas relief to state prisoners on any claim that has already been adjudicated on the merits by a state court unless the state court's decision (1) “was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States” or (2) “was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented.” § 2254(d)(1)-(2). First, the decision of the Wisconsin Court of Appeals was not “contrary to” clearly established law because it identified and applied the correct legal standard for evaluating ineffective assistance of counsel claims, Strickland. Hinesley v. Knight, No. 15-2122, 2016 WL 4758437, at *7 (7th Cir. Sept. 13, 2016) (first citing Bell v. Cone, 543 U.S. 447, 452-53 (2005) (per curiam); and then citing Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000)). Second, Laughrin does not challenge the factual determinations of the state court, so I need not consider whether the state court's determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented was unreasonable. Therefore, I consider only whether the Wisconsin Court of Appeals unreasonably applied Strickland.

         To show that a state court decision involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law, “a state prisoner must show that the state court's ruling on the claim being presented in federal court was so lacking in justification that there was an error well understood and comprehended in existing law beyond any possibility for fair-minded disagreement.” Harrington v. Richter, 562 U.S. 86, 103 (2011). This is a difficult standard for a habeas petitioner to meet “because it was meant to be.” Id. at 102. “[H]abeas corpus is a ‘guard against extreme malfunctions in the state criminal justice systems, ' not a substitute for ordinary error correction through appeal.” Id. at 102-03 (quoting Jackson v. Virginia, 443 U.S. 307, 332 n.5 (1979) (Stevens, J., concurring in judgment)).

         This standard is particularly difficult to meet as to ineffective-assistance claims. “The standards created by Strickland and §2254(d) are both ‘highly deferential, ' and when the two apply in tandem, review is ‘doubly' so.” Id. at 105 (citations omitted) (first quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 689; then citing Lindh v. Murphy, 521 U.S. 320, 333 n.7 (1997); and then quoting Knowles v. Mirzayance, 556 U.S. 111, 123 (2008)). Further, Strickland's general standard allows for a substantial range of reasonable applications. Id. (citing Knowles, 556 U.S. at 123). Thus, “[w]hen § 2254(d) applies, the question is ...

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