Court Rules Defense Witnesses May Sometimes Be Barred from Testifying
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Courts sometimes may bar defense witnesses from testifying at criminal trials in order to punish the defendants’ lawyers, the Supreme Court ruled today.
By a 5-3 vote, the justices upheld a Chicago man’s attempted-murder conviction and 10-year sentence even though one would-be defense witness was not allowed to testify because of a defense lawyer’s procedural violation.
Writing for the court, Justice John Paul Stevens said barring a witness from a trial is justified - and does not violate a defendant’s fair-trial rights - if a defense lawyer’s violations are aimed at gaining some tactical advantage or to conceal a plan to present phony testimony.
″It is plain that (this) case fits into the category of willful misconduct in which the severest sanction is appropriate,″ Stevens wrote.
Ray Taylor was in an Aug. 6, 1981, street fight in Chicago involving himself and some friends on one side and Jack Bridges and some of Bridge’s relatives on the other.
Bridges was shot during the fight.
Taylor was not indicted until 22 months later, when he was charged with attempted murder in the shooting. His trial, in large part, amounted to a test of witness credibility.
While witnesses for the state testified they saw Taylor shoot Bridges, two defense witnesses said they saw Bridges’ brother accidentally shoot him while trying to protect him.
The day before the defense witnesses were to begin testifying - well into the trial - Taylor’s lawyer sought court permission to put Alfred Wormley on the stand. Wormley was ready to testify that he saw two of Bridges’ relatives with pistols the day of the fight.
The judge, saying the lawyer had committed a ″blatant violation of discovery rules″ by failing to notify the court and the state’s prosecutors of the proposed testimony sooner, refused to let Wormley take the stand.
Taylor eventually was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
His appeal had argued that his fair-trial rights were sacrificed even though he, himself, had not caused the procedural error.
In today’s decision, Stevens said the record in Taylor’s case indicates that his lawyer deliberately was seeking a tactical advantage in not listing Wormley as a potential witness earlier.
″More is at stake than possible prejudice to the prosecution,″ Stevens said. ″We are also concerned with the impact of this kind of conduct on the integrity of the judicial process itself.″
He was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Byron R. White, Sandra Day O’Connor and Antonin Scalia.
Justices William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall and Harry A. Blackmun dissented.
Writing for the three, Brennan said, ″The court today sacrifices the paramount values of the criminal system in a misguided and unnecessary effort to preserve the sanctity of discovery.″
In other action, the court:
- Ordered further lower court study of whether states may ban bookstores from displaying some sexually explicit material where children might see it.
By an 8-0 vote, the justices ordered the Virginia Supreme Court to determine how sweeping that state’s ban is intended to be. The ruling bars enforcement of the law pending the state court review.
- Turned down an appeal by a former postmaster general who said he was fired for trying to foil a kickback scheme.
The justices, without comment, let stand a ruling that federal courts are powerless to reinstate Paul N. Carlin in his old job or grant him other relief.
- Refused to hear an appeal by 15 white men who say they were denied jobs as Chicago firefighters because of reverse racial bias.
The court, without comment, left intact a ruling that the men waited too long to challenge an affirmative action consent agreement.
The witnesses case is Taylor vs. Illinois, 86-5963.