Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals - Published Opinions

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Burton: Client may have ultimate authority to call witnesses

In Burton v. Commissioner, Alabama Dep’t of Corrections, No. 10-12108 (Nov. 7, 2012), the Court denied habeas relief to an Alabama death row inmate.

At the penalty phase of Burton’s murder trial, contradicting the position of his defense counsel stated on the record, Burton asked the trial judge to have counsel call two of his accomplices. These two witnesses not only provided no mitigating evidence, but they opened the door for cross-examination that allowed the State to introduce aggravating evidence. The jury sentenced Burton to death, and the Alabama courts affirmed.

In federal habeas proceedings, Burton argued that the Alabama trial judge erred when he allowed Burton to override the decision of his own defense lawyer, and had the two witnesses testify in the penalty phase. The Court rejected this argument, noting that the United States Supreme Court has not yet decided whether the ultimate authority to call witnesses at trial belongs to counsel or the client. Consequently, the state trial judge’s ruling that the decision to call witnesses ultimately rests with the client did not contravene clearly established law as determined by the Supreme Court – the standard for habeas relief under AEDPA.