Criminal Procedure

Defense lawyer decides whether to call trial witnesses, even if client objects, top Fla. court says

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His lawyers wanted him to take a plea, and thought it would not be in Vincent Puglisi’s best interest to call a co-defendant as a defense witness in his first-degree murder trial.

But Puglisi thought otherwise, leading to an appeal in which the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that a defense lawyer, as long as he or she continues to represent the client, has the final word on what witnesses to present at trial, the Palm Beach Post reports.

The decision represents something of an about-face from the supreme court’s ruling in a 1984 case, Blanco v. State, in which the court said the defendant could make the final decision when there was a difference of opinion with defense counsel.

In its written opinion (PDF) about Puglisi, the court explains that a lawyer must be able to exercise professional judgment when trying a case and points out that it may be difficult for a client to understand legal issues that could weigh in favor of calling—or not calling—a witness to the stand.

“We hold that the decision to present witnesses is not a fundamental decision resting exclusively with a criminal defendant when he or she is represented by counsel. Defense counsel must have the ultimate authority in exercising his or her client’s constitutional right to present witnesses as such is a tactical, strategic decision within counsel’s professional judgment,” the court writes. “Therefore, if a criminal defendant disagrees with his or her attorney as to whether to have a witness testify at trial, it is the defense counsel who has the ultimate authority on the matter so long as he or she continues to represent the defendant. The decision ultimately made by counsel is and must be binding on his or her client.”

A concurring justice says that defense counsel must consult with the client about whether to call a witness and the lawyer’s decision must be “a reasonable strategic determination.”

A Sun Sentinel page links to earlier news articles about the case and Puglisi’s trial.

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