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State v. Langlois

Supreme Court of Wisconsin

June 20, 2018

State of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
Joseph T. Langlois, Defendant-Appellant-Petitioner.

          Submitted on Briefs: Oral Argument: April 17, 2018

         REVIEW OF DECISION OF THE COURT OF APPEALS Reported at 371 Wis.2d 302, 901 N.W.2d 768');">901 N.W.2d 768

          Washington County Circuit Court L.C. No. 2014CF43 James K. Muehlbauer Judge

          For the defendant-appellant-petitioner, there were briefs filed and an oral argument by Andrew J. Jarmuz and The Law Office of Andrew J. Jarmuz, LLC, Edina, Minnesota.

          For the plaintiff-respondent, there was a brief filed and an oral argument by Donald V. Latorraca, assistant attorney general, with whom on the brief was Brad D. Schimel, attorney general.

          ANNETTE KINGSLAND ZIEGLER, J.

         ¶1 This is a review of a published decision of the court of appeals, State v. Langlois, 2017 WI.App. 44, 377 Wis.2d 302, 901 N.W.2d 768');">901 N.W.2d 768, affirming the Washington County circuit court's[1] judgment of conviction for Joseph T. Langlois ("Langlois") for homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon, contrary to Wis.Stat. § 940.08(1) (2015-16), [2] and its denial of Langlois' postconviction motions.

         ¶2 On February 4, 2014, Langlois and his brother, Jacob, got into a fight. The fight turned physical and Langlois, having picked up a fillet knife from a nearby nightstand, stabbed Jacob, fatally injuring him. The State charged Langlois with first-degree reckless homicide by use of a dangerous weapon, contrary to Wis.Stat. § 940.02(1), and, at trial, sought conviction on any one of three offenses: the offense charged, or either of two lesser-included offenses, second-degree reckless homicide by use of a dangerous weapon, contrary to Wis.Stat. § 940.06(1), or homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon, contrary to Wis.Stat. § 940.08(1) . The jury found Langlois guilty of homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon.

         ¶3 Post-conviction, Langlois filed two motions, both of which challenged the sufficiency of the evidence and the jury instructions relating to Langlois' defenses of accident and self-defense. Langlois argued that omissions in the jury instructions were reversible error on any one of three grounds: ineffective assistance of counsel, due process violation, or interest of justice. The circuit court denied both motions, concluding that the evidence was sufficient and that the jury instructions were not erroneous. Langlois appealed.

         ¶4 The court of appeals affirmed. Langlois, 377 Wis.2d 302, ¶¶1, 51. It held that the circuit "court's instructions to the jury, when viewed in their entirety and not in isolation, were not erroneous." Id., ¶36. It therefore concluded that trial counsel was not ineffective because failure to object to correct instructions is not deficient performance; that there was no due process violation; and that Langlois was not entitled to a new trial in the interest of justice. Id., ¶¶36-37. The court of appeals also concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support the verdict because a rational jury could have found that the knife was a dangerous weapon; that the way Langlois handled the weapon constituted criminal negligence; and that Langlois had not acted in self-defense where he had had the opportunity to leave the room without using force. Id., ¶¶48-49, 51. Langlois petitioned for review.

         ¶5 On review, we consider two issues. First, we consider whether the jury instructions were erroneous. We conclude that they were not, because, taken as a whole, they accurately state the law. Consequently, we conclude that there is no basis for Langlois' claim of ineffective assistance of counsel, there is no due process violation, and reversal in the interest of justice is not appropriate. Second, we consider whether there was sufficient evidence to support the jury's verdict. We conclude that there was, because the evidence, viewed most favorably to sustaining the conviction, supports a finding of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

         ¶6 Thus, we affirm the decision of the court of appeals.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         ¶7 The events of February 4, 2014, are not subject to significant dispute.[3] Langlois, then 17 years old, had stayed home from school that day, and Jacob, then 20 years old, was home packing some things before leaving for the military.[4] When Karen, their mother, came home from work at about 1:40 p.m., they were both in their rooms. She checked on Langlois first, who told her that Jacob was packing for boot camp and that he was packing some items that did not belong to him, including Langlois' Xbox and one of their father's fillet knives.[5] This behavior was not atypical of Jacob, who had a tendency to take things that did not belong to him.[6]

         ¶8 Karen then went to check on Jacob, whose room was right next to Langlois'. She asked him about taking things that did not belong to him and Jacob became agitated. Langlois walked into Jacob's room at that point, picked up the Xbox, and walked out. Karen then asked Jacob to give her the fillet knife, which he did, and she set it down-in its sheath-on a nearby nightstand. Langlois was heading back into the room at that point, but Jacob started pushing the door closed. Langlois, however, was able to push his way into the room and demanded to see what else Jacob had of his. Jacob then jumped on Langlois from behind and put him in a chokehold; after a few seconds Langlois capitulated and Jacob let go.

         ¶9 Langlois came up with the fillet knife in his right hand-now unsheathed-held up near his right shoulder, pointing out. Jacob and Langlois were yelling at one another and Jacob kicked Langlois. Langlois fell back and Jacob moved forward; Langlois caught himself and collided with Jacob, piercing the upper left side of Jacob's chest with the knife. Jacob stood up and stepped back, and Karen, seeing some blood on Langlois' leg, moved forward to check to see if Langlois was injured. Jacob, now grabbing the side of his chest, said "No, mom, it's me." Karen turned, saw the wound, and rushed out of the room to call 9-1-1. Jacob walked out to the kitchen, at first standing by the counter, then sitting in a chair; when he fell unconscious, Langlois helped Karen lay Jacob on the floor and began CPR.

         ¶10 Deputy Scott Nauman of the Washington County Sheriff's Department responded to the 9-1-1 call. He arrived to the house approximately two minutes after the call, announced his presence as he entered through the open garage, and moved toward the kitchen where he saw Langlois administering CPR to Jacob, who was lying in a large pool of blood. Nauman asked Langlois, "[w]ho did this to him, " to which Langlois responded "I did."[7]Nauman placed Langlois under arrest, directed Karen to take over administering CPR, and escorted Langlois out to his squad car.

         ¶11 On February 6, 2014, the State filed its criminal complaint charging Langlois with one count of first-degree reckless homicide, use of a dangerous weapon, contrary to Wis.Stat. § 940.02(1). On July 16, 2014, the State filed an information alleging the same. On August 27, 2014, Langlois pled not guilty and the case proceeded to trial.

         A. Trial Testimony

         ¶12 On July 14, 2015, trial began. Over the course of three days, the jury heard testimony from 18 witnesses.

         1. State witnesses

         ¶13 Deputy Nauman, as noted above, was the first responder to the scene. Nauman testified that, as he was taking Langlois out of the house, the second responding officer, Washington County Sheriff's Deputy Jesse Williams, was coming in with his medical kit. After securing Langlois in the back seat of the squad car, Nauman returned to the house and helped Williams render aid to Jacob. Nauman testified that there was a lot of blood on the floor, but no more blood was coming out of the puncture site, and that Jacob was having trouble breathing at that point.

         ¶14 Deputy Christopher Killey of the Washington County Sheriff's Department was the third officer to arrive to the scene and testified that he took up watching over Langlois, who was still seated in the back of Nauman's patrol car. Observing the blood on Langlois' clothing, Killey asked Langlois if he was injured and Langlois replied that he was not. Killey testified that he then asked Langlois for his name, to which Langlois responded: "what does it matter? I stabbed my brother. I stabbed my brother."

         ¶15 Detective James Wolf and Investigator David Klopfenstein, both of the Washington County Sheriff's Department, were also at the scene. Wolf was tasked with processing the scene while Klopfenstein interviewed Karen. Klopfenstein testified that Karen appeared calm, [8] that she agreed to accompany him to the Hartford Police Department to make a statement, and that she never used the term "accident" or "self-defense" in either her oral or written statements. Wolf testified that he did a walk-through of the house, observing "a large pool of blood" on the kitchen floor and blood drops on the floor in Jacob's bedroom. Also on the floor in Jacob's bedroom were the fillet knife and knife sheath, which he collected as evidence.[9] Wolf testified that the knife had an approximately six-inch blade, and that the blade had blood on it.

         ¶16 Dr. Zelda Okia, the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Jacob, testified that, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, the cause of death was a puncture wound, six inches deep, on the left side of his chest between his second and third ribs. On cross-examination, Dr. Okia acknowledged that she could not tell from the autopsy whether the knife had been thrust into Jacob or whether Jacob had fallen onto it.

         ¶17 Detective Joel Clausing of the Washington County Sheriff's Department-the State's final witness-conducted the interview of Langlois. The interview was videotaped[10] and proceeded in essentially three parts: a verbal interview, a written statement, and a reenactment. Clausing testified that Langlois said he had grabbed the knife because he wanted to make Jacob feel "scared so he could back down"; and that Langlois said he was angry and that he had stabbed Jacob because "he kicked me and I just reacted. I mean, there's no thinking about it. It was just reaction." Clausing also testified that during the reenactment, Langlois demonstrated a forward motion with his arm, and the State admitted photos showing a frame-by-frame capture of this part of Langlois' demonstration.

         2. Defense witnesses[11]

         ¶18 The first witness for the defense was the family attorney who helped the Langloises in the initial aftermath to understand the criminal process Langlois was subject to. He testified that when he met with Karen a few weeks after the incident to go over the statements she and Langlois had made to the police, Karen told him that both statements were "really incomplete, " and that the stabbing had been an accident. He testified that he then arranged a second meeting with the police, during which Karen told Detective Clausing and Investigator Klopfenstein that Jacob had had "wild eyes" and that Langlois had jack-knifed forward after being kicked, which is what caused the stabbing.[12]

         ¶19 Langlois testified next. In addition to testifying to the facts of the altercation given above, Langlois corroborated the testimony of Nauman and Killey, confirming that he said "I did" in response to Deputy Nauman's question "who did this, " and that he told Deputy Killey "I stabbed him." Langlois also testified that he was aware of what a fillet knife is; that he knew the knife was sheathed because it was sharp; that he picked the fillet knife up and unsheathed it; and that, when he collided with Jacob, the knife pierced Jacob's chest. He testified that afterwards he grabbed two first aid kits and ran after Jacob to the kitchen where he saw "something that [he] won't be able to forget ever, the blood just squirting out of [Jacob] at a really high speed and really fast all in like one or two seconds." Langlois testified that it was not his intent to physically hurt Jacob, but rather that he had picked up the knife "[t]o get him to stop and stop attacking me and my mom. . . . [Jacob] was really angry and I wanted him to stop being extremely angry towards me. And I was pretty much just afraid of being put in another choke hold as well." He said that what happened was an accident, but admitted on cross-examination that nowhere in his statement to the police did he use the word "accident" or "self-defense, " and that he could have walked out of the room but did not because he was "furious."

         ¶20 The defense then called seven character witnesses, all of whom testified that Langlois was an involved and contributing member of the community. Five also testified that Langlois was an intelligent individual. The defense closed its case with the testimony of Karen and Steven Langlois-the parents of the victim and of the defendant.

         ¶21 Steven testified that Jacob had an "explosive" temper, and that Jacob had, in the past, punched through windows and kicked walls and doors. On one occasion, Jacob had even physically attacked Steven. Steven testified that he had no such problems with Langlois, however; Langlois did his school work and was in advanced placement classes, had a job, was in scouts, was taking flying lessons, and generally did everything that was asked of him. He further testified that, in general, the brothers had a typical sibling relationship-"Will you stop touching me, that kind of stuff. . . never [] any violent acts." Karen, in addition to testifying to the facts of the altercation given above, verified that Jacob had acted out aggressively-and in one instance, with Steven, physically-in the home and at school.

         3. Rebuttal witnesses

         ¶22 In rebuttal, the State called Sergeant Amy Swan, Jacob's recruiter from the National Guard. She testified that Jacob had always been respectful in her interactions with him, but admitted on cross-examination that she had not spoken with Jacob's parents or reviewed his school disciplinary record in evaluating his fitness for service.

         B. Jury Instructions

         ¶23 At the close of evidence, the State requested instruction on the charged offense-first-degree reckless homicide by use of a dangerous weapon-and on two lesser-included offenses-second-degree reckless homicide by use of a dangerous weapon[13] and homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon.[14] It also requested the instruction regarding retreat.[15] The defense requested instruction on both self-defense[16] and the defense of accident.[17] The circuit court granted these requests and instructed the jury, in relevant part, as follows:

The information in this case . . . charged the Defendant with first degree reckless homicide use of a dangerous weapon and you must first consider whether the Defendant is guilty of that offense.
If you are not satisfied that the Defendant is guilty of first degree reckless homicide, you must consider whether or not the Defendant is guilty of second degree reckless homicide use of a dangerous weapon, which is a less serious degree of criminal homicide.
If you are not satisfied that the Defendant is guilty of first degree reckless homicide or guilty of second degree reckless homicide, then you must consider whether or not the Defendant is guilty of homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon, which is a less serious offense than either first or second degree reckless homicide.

         1. First-degree reckless homicide, use of a dangerous weapon

         ¶24 After defining first-degree reckless homicide per Wis.Stat. § 940.02(1), the circuit court discussed self-defense:

Self defense is an issue in this case. In deciding whether the Defendant's conduct was criminally reckless conduct which showed utter disregard for human life or was criminally negligent conduct, you should also consider whether the Defendant acted in lawful self defense.
The law of self defense allows the Defendant to threaten or intentionally use force against another only if the Defendant believed that there was an actual or [imminent] unlawful interference with the Defendant's person and the Defendant believed that the amount of force the Defendant used or threatened to use was necessary to prevent or terminate the interference and the Defendant's beliefs were reasonable.
The Defendant may intentionally use force, which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm, only if the Defendant reasonably believes that the force used was necessary to prevent [imminent] death or great bodily harm to himself. A belief may be reasonable, even though mistaken.
In determining whether the Defendant's beliefs were reasonable, the standard is what a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence would have believed in the Defendant's position under the circumstances that existed at the time of the alleged offense.
The reasonableness of the Defendant's beliefs must be determined from the standpoint of the Defendant at the time of the Defendant's acts and not from the viewpoint of the jury now.

         The court then gave the instruction on retreat:

Let's talk about this issue of retreat. There is no duty to retreat, however, in determining whether the Defendant reasonably believed the amount of force used was necessary to prevent or terminate the interference, you may consider whether the Defendant had an opportunity to retreat with safety and whether such retreat was feasible and whether the Defendant knew of the opportunity to retreat.

         After reciting the second element of first-degree reckless homicide-which includes a definition of "criminally reckless conduct" as "conduct [that] created a risk of death or great bodily harm to another person and the risk of death or great bodily harm was unreasonable and substantial"-but before reciting the third, the court further stated:

You should consider the evidence relating to self defense in deciding whether the Defendant's conduct created ... an unreasonable risk to another. If the Defendant was acting lawfully in self defense, his conduct did not create an unreasonable risk to another.
The burden is on the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant did not act lawfully in self defense. And you must be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt from all the evidence in the case that the risk was unreasonable.
We'll talk about the concept of accident. The Defendant contends that he did not act with criminally reckless conduct but rather, that what happened was an accident. If the Defendant did not act with criminally reckless conduct required for a crime, the Defendant is not guilty of that crime.

         The court then discussed the third and final element of the first-degree offense and concluded by instructing the jury to

make every reasonable effort to agree unanimously on the charge of first degree reckless homicide before considering second degree reckless homicide. However, if after full and complete consideration of the evidence you conclude that further deliberation would not result in unanimous agreement on the charge of first degree reckless homicide, you should consider whether the Defendant is guilty of second degree reckless homicide.

         2. Second-degree reckless homicide, use of a dangerous weapon

         ¶25 After defining second-degree reckless homicide per Wis.Stat. § 940.06, the court explained the difference between first-degree and second-degree reckless homicide-that "the first degree offense requires proof of one additional element; namely, that the circumstances of the Defendant's conduct showed utter disregard for human life"-and told the jury:

If you are satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that all the elements of first degree reckless homicide were present except [the additional element], you should find the Defendant guilty of second degree reckless homicide.

         The circuit court did not repeat the instructions for self-defense or accident. It then concluded:

However, if after a full and complete consideration of the evidence you conclude that further deliberation would not result in unanimous agreement on the charge of second degree reckless homicide, then you should consider whether the Defendant is guilty of homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon.

         3. Homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon

         ¶26 After defining homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon per Wis.Stat. § 940.08(1), the circuit court again discussed self-defense:

Self defense is an issue in this case that also applies to the charge of homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon. In deciding whether the Defendant's conduct was criminally negligent conduct, you should also consider whether the Defendant acted lawfully in self defense.
As I previously indicated, the law of self defense allows the Defendant to threaten or intentionally use force against another only if the Defendant believed that there was an actual or [imminent] unlawful interference with the Defendant's person and the Defendant believed that the amount of force the Defendant used or threatened to use was necessary to prevent or terminate the interference and the Defendant's beliefs were reasonable.
The Defendant may intentionally use force which is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm only if the Defendant reasonably believed that the force [] used was necessary to prevent [imminent] death or great bodily harm to himself.
And as I previously indicated, a belief may be reasonable even though mistaken. In determining whether the Defendant's beliefs were reasonable, the standard is what a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence would have believed in the Defendant's position under the circumstances that existed at the time of the alleged offense.
The reasonableness of the Defendant's beliefs must be determined from the standpoint of the Defendant at the time of the Defendant's acts and not from the viewpoint of the jury now.

         The court then reiterated its prior instruction on retreat:

And as I previously indicated, there's no duty to retreat. However, in determining . . . whether the Defendant reasonably believed that the amount of force used was necessary to prevent or terminate the interference, you may consider whether the Defendant had the opportunity to retreat with safety, whether such retreat was feasible and whether the Defendant knew of the opportunity to retreat.

         And, after reciting the definition of "criminal negligence"- that "Defendant's operation or handling of a dangerous weapon created a risk of death or great bodily harm and the risk of death or great bodily harm was unreasonable and substantial [of which] the Defendant should have been aware"-the court again discussed the defense of accident:

Once again, the Defendant contends that he was not aware of the risk of death or great bodily harm required for a crime but rather that what happened was an accident.
If the Defendant was not aware of the risk of death or great bodily harm required for a crime, the Defendant is not guilty of that crime. Before you may find the Defendant guilty of homicide by negligent operation of a dangerous weapon . . . the State must prove by evidence that satisfies you beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant should have been aware of the risk of death or great bodily harm.

         4. General instructions

         ¶27 In addition to these charge-specific instructions, the circuit court generally instructed the jury, in relevant part, as follows:

Defendants are not required to prove their innocence. The law presumes every person charged with the commission of an offense to be innocent. This presumption requires a finding of not guilty unless in your deliberations you find it is overcome by evidence which satisfies you beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant is guilty.
The burden of establishing every fact necessary to constitute guilt is upon the State. Before you can return a verdict of guilty, the evidence must satisfy you beyond a reasonable doubt that the Defendant is guilty.

         ¶28 Defense counsel did not object to either the charge-specific instructions or the general instructions.

         C. Postconviction Motions

         ¶29 On July 17, 2015, the jury returned its verdict: "We, the jury, find the defendant, Joseph Langlois, guilty of Homicide by Negligent Handling of a Dangerous Weapon." Langlois moved for a judgment notwithstanding the verdict, which the circuit court denied. On September 28, 2015, the circuit court entered judgment of conviction[18] and sentenced Langlois to five years probation.

         ¶30 Langlois filed his first postconviction motion on September 9, 2015, pursuant to Wis.Stat. § 974.02, moving for reconsideration of the denial of his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. He argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the verdict because the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that "a normally prudent person under the same circumstances" "should have been aware that his operation or handling of a dangerous weapon created the unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm."[19] Relatedly, Langlois challenged the jury instructions, focusing on the accident instruction:

The instructions on accident should have directed the jury to consider whether the State proved by evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant should have been aware of the "unreasonable and substantial" risk of death or great bodily harm; not merely the "risk" of death or great bodily harm. This omitted language created a lower standard for the State to meet in order for the jury to find the defendant guilty of Homicide by Negligent Handling of a Dangerous Weapon.

         On October 7, 2015, the State responded that the only element in dispute was whether Langlois acted with criminal negligence, and there was sufficient evidence to support the verdict because both his written statement and videotaped confession "show that a jury could have drawn the appropriate inferences." The State also pointed out that Langlois' argument regarding the jury instructions was waived by defense counsel's failure to object, [20] but argued that, in any event, "the jury instructions as a whole did not mislead the jury." The circuit court denied Langlois' motion by decision and order dated October 29, 2015, concluding that "[t]he undisputed evidence . . . was more than sufficient to allow the jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Langlois was criminally negligent, " and that "there is not even a hint of any possible error in the instructions."

         ¶31 Langlois filed his second postconviction motion on May 2, 2016, pursuant to Wis.Stat. § 809.30(2)(h), renewing his arguments regarding the sufficiency of the evidence and the jury instruction on accident, but now also challenging the jury instruction on self-defense and raising a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. He argued that the circuit court's failure to reiterate the State's burden to disprove self-defense when it instructed on homicide by negligent handling of a dangerous weapon had the effect of shifting the burden to him. The State's response, filed June 1, 2016, repeated its arguments in response to Langlois' first postconviction motion: the jury instructions as a whole were complete and did not mislead the jury; therefore, failure to object was not ineffective assistance of counsel, there was no due process violation, and the real controversy was tried. Similarly, the State again pointed to Langlois' written statement and verbal interview as providing sufficient evidence to support the only disputed element-criminally negligent operation of a dangerous weapon. The circuit court denied this second motion by decision and order dated June 28, 2016, for the same reasons it denied Langlois' first motion: it concluded that the jury instructions were not erroneous[21] and that the evidence was sufficient.

         ¶32 On July 14, 2016, Langlois noticed appeal. The court of appeals affirmed. Langlois, 377 Wis.2d 302, ¶¶1, 51. It concluded that the circuit "court's instructions to the jury, when viewed in their entirety and not in isolation, were not erroneous." Id., ¶36. With regard to the self-defense instruction, the court of appeals held that the jury had no reason to infer that Langlois bore any burden because the circuit court gave an accurate self-defense instruction, told the jury that self-defense applied to all of the counts, and specifically referenced the self-defense instruction when instructing the jury on negligent homicide by handling of a dangerous weapon. Id., ¶¶30, 32. With regard to the accident instruction, the court of appeals held that the instructions were clear as to the requisite mental state because they referred the jury back to the immediately preceding definition of criminal negligence. Id., ¶35. The court of appeals therefore concluded that trial counsel was not ineffective because failure to object to correct jury instructions is not deficient performance, and that Langlois was not entitled to a new trial in the interest of justice because there is no denial of due process where correct jury instructions are given. Id., ¶¶36-37. The court of appeals further concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support the verdict because a rational jury could have found that the knife was a dangerous weapon; that the way Langlois handled the weapon constituted criminal negligence; and that Langlois had not acted in self-defense because he had had the opportunity to leave the room without using force.[22] Id., ¶¶48-49, 51.

         ¶33 On August 11, 2017, Langlois petitioned for review. On December 13, 2017, we granted ...


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