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Mendoza v. State

Florida Court of Appeal, Third District

February 29, 2012

Francisco MENDOZA, Appellant,
v.
The STATE of Florida, Appellee.

Page 580

Francisco Mendoza, in proper person.

Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, for appellee.

Before CORTIÑAS, EMAS and FERNANDEZ, JJ.

EMAS, J.

Defendant Francisco Mendoza appeals the trial court's order denying, without an evidentiary hearing, his motion for postconviction relief pursuant to Florida Rule of Criminal Procedure 3.850. Mendoza's motion raised six claims. While we find that none of the claims has merit, one of Mendoza's claims does warrant further discussion.

Mendoza asserted in his postconviction motion that trial counsel rendered ineffective assistance of counsel for failing to call certain witnesses to testify at the trial,[1]

Page 581

and that such failure constituted deficient performance resulting in prejudice, warranting relief under the two-pronged test of Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668, 104 S.Ct. 2052, 80 L.Ed.2d 674 (1984).

Whether to call a particular witness to testify at trial is ordinarily a strategic decision committed to the professional judgment of trial counsel, assuming that counsel has conducted a reasonable investigation before making such a decision. These strategic decisions are generally not subject to postconviction attack under Strickland.

An ineffective assistance claim for failure to call a witness to testify at trial must be distinguished from an ineffective assistance claim for failure to reasonably investigate and locate witnesses. Unlike the strategic decision to call a witness to testify at trial, the failure to reasonably investigate and locate witnesses can often serve as a colorable claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. Wiggins v. Smith, 539 U.S. 510, 521, 123 S.Ct. 2527, 156 L.Ed.2d 471 (2003) (observing that " counsel has a duty to make reasonable investigations or to make a reasonable decision that makes particular investigations unnecessary" (quoting Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690-91, 104 S.Ct. 2052)).

However, if a reasonable investigation has been conducted, subsequent decisions based on that investigation (such as the decision not to call a particular witness at trial) are presumed to be reasonable and strategic and are " virtually unchallengeable." Strickland, 466 U.S. at 690, 104 S.Ct. 2052. A defendant can rebut this presumption only by establishing that " no competent counsel" would have made the same decision. White v. State, 729 So.2d 909, 912 (Fla.1999). See also Windom v. State, 886 So.2d 915, 922 (Fla.2004) (" A strategic or tactical decision is not a valid basis for an ineffective claim unless a defendant is able to show that no competent trial counsel would have utilized the tactics employed by trial counsel." ).

In the instant case, however, Mendoza does not claim that the underlying investigation of these witnesses was unreasonable. Rather, Mendoza claims that trial counsel knew what these witnesses would testify to, and the failure to call the witnesses met Strickland's two-prong requirements of constitutionally deficient performance and actual prejudice. Given the reasonableness of the underlying investigation, the subsequent decision not to call these witnesses is presumed to be reasonable and strategic, and, as characterized by Strickland, is virtually unchallengeable. Mendoza has failed to overcome this presumption, and thus cannot establish that trial counsel's performance was deficient under Strickland.

Moreover, the record reveals that Mendoza affirmatively agreed with his trial counsel's strategic decision. During trial, the court conducted a colloquy with Mendoza, on the record and outside the presence of the jury, which established that Mendoza agreed with the decision not to call any other witnesses at trial.[2] The trial court specifically asked ...


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