The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday the rights of criminal defendants are not violated when they are denied the opportunity to confer with their lawyers during brief trial recesses.
By a 6-3 vote, the justices upheld the murder, kidnapping and criminal assault convictions of Donald Ray Perry of South Carolina.During a 15-minute trial recess while Perry was testifying, his lawyer sought to speak to him to advise him about his rights during cross-examination. But the judge refused to allow them to talk.
Justice John Paul Stevens said, "The federal Constitution does not compel every trial judge to allow the defendant to consult with his lawyer while his testimony is in progress if the judge decides that there is a good reason to interrupt the trial for a few minutes."
The truth more likely may emerge if a defendant who has been testifying and is about to undergo cross-examination is denied the chance to talk to his attorney, Stevens said.
"Permitting a witness to consult with counsel after direct examination but before cross-examination grants the witness an opportunity to regroup and regain a poise and sense of strategy that the unaided witness would not possess," he said.
Stevens drew a distinction between Perry's case and one in 1976 in which the court ruled that a defendant's right to the assistance of his lawyer was violated when he was barred from talking with the lawyer during an overnight recess.
"The normal consultation between attorney and client that occurs during an overnight recess would encompass matters that go beyond the content of the defendant's own testimony . . . such as the availability of other witnesses, trial tactics or even the possibility of negotiating a plea bargain," Stevens said.
The Constitution guarantees a defendant will be allowed to talk to his lawyer about such matters, Stevens said.
Justice Thurgood Marshall, in a dissenting opinion, said the ruling is "a lapse in this court's commitment to fundamental fairness for criminal defendants."
Marshall said prosecution witnesses routinely are allowed to confer with the prosecutor during brief recesses.
Justices William J. Brennan and Harry A. Blackmun joined Marshall's dissent.
Perry was sentenced to life in prison in the killing of Mary Heimberger, whose body was found on March 7, 1981, in a wooded area in Richland County, S.C.
Perry confessed to police that he shot the victim but said it was an accident.
Heimberger had been raped, shot in both kneecaps and fatally shot in the chest.
Perry filed a federal court appeal in 1985, and a judge ruled that his rights were violated when the trial judge refused to allow him to talk to his lawyer.
But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the conviction in 1987.