Is it unconstitutional for defense counsel to concede an accused’s guilt over the accused’s express objection? (McCoy v. Louisiana)

 

This post is written by Senior Editor Brittany Grigery. Opinions and views expressed herein are those of the writer alone.

As 2018 begins, the Supreme Court will consider the case of Robert McCoy, who was convicted of first-degree murder for the shooting deaths of his estranged wife’s son, mother, and step-father. After firing his public defender, McCoy was represented by Attorney Larry English. An attorney paid by his parents. McCoy maintained his innocence and “emphatically opposed” his attorney’s proposal to concede his guilt. His attorney believed pleading guilty would spare McCoy the death penalty because of the overwhelming evidence against McCoy. A few days before his trial, McCoy attempted to fire English and proceed pro se. The court rejected this request on the ground that it came too late. [1]

When the trial began, English conceded McCoy’s guilt, despite McCoy’s objection. The court permitted English to tell the jury that McCoy had in fact committed the acts for which he was on trial. With the court’s approval, English assured the jury that his “client committed three murders” and told them he “took that burden [of proof beyond a reasonable doubt] off of” the prosecutor. [2]

In an interview with the New York Times, English remembers his pre-trial meeting with McCoy. “I met with Robert at the courthouse and explained to him that I intended to concede that he had killed the three victims,” Mr. English recalled. “Robert was furious and it was a very intense meeting. He told me not to make that concession, but I told him that I was going to do so.” [3] English later explained, “I know that Robert was completely opposed to me telling the jury that he was guilty of killing the three victims … but I believed that this was the only way to save his life.”[4]

McCoy was subsequently convicted and sentenced to death. McCoy appealed the concession of guilt. He is arguing that it violated his constitutional right to have effective assistance of counsel.[5] Specifically, McCoy is arguing that when the accused in a criminal proceeding chooses to defend against the charges rather than admit guilt, the Constitution does not allow his lawyer to override that choice and tell the jury, over the client’s express objection, that the client is guilty. [6]

The Louisiana Supreme Court found that English made a reasonable strategic decision to admit McCoy’s guilt and thereby supposedly improve McCoy’s chance of receiving a life sentence rather than death.[7] Louisiana relies on Florida v. Nixon[8] which holds that when a defendant is unresponsive after being consulted about whether to admit guilt or claim innocence, no blanket rule demanding the defendant’s explicit consent bars counsel from conceding guilt in the hope of securing a more lenient sentence.[9] But McCoy argues in his brief that it is irrelevant whether an admission of guilt might have been reasonable trial strategy. [10] Once McCoy communicated his contrary decision, that choice was not English’s to make. [11]

The Cato Institute[12] filed an amicus brief in support of McCoy. It argues that the constitution protects the autonomy of criminal defendants, overruling a defendant’s decision to deny guilt violates defendant autonomy, and failure to protect defendant autonomy will undermine the integrity of the entire judicial process. [13]

Oral argument is set for Wednesday, January 17, 2018.

[1] Amy Howe, Justices issue orders from “long conference”, SCOTUSblog (September 28, 2017, 10:54 am), http://www.scotusblog.com/2017/09/justices-issue-orders-long-conference/

[2] Brief of Petitioner at 2, McCoy v. Louisiana, 218 So. 3d 535 (La. 2016) (No. 16-8255).

[3] See Adam Liptak, Facing the Death Penalty With a Disloyal Lawyer, NY Times (October 9, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/09/us/politics/death-penalty-supreme-court-attorney.html?_r=0

[4] See Adam Liptak, Facing the Death Penalty With a Disloyal Lawyer, NY Times (October 9, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/09/us/politics/death-penalty-supreme-court-attorney.html?_r=0

[5] Amy Howe, Justices issue orders from “long conference”, SCOTUSblog (September 28, 2017, 10:54 am), http://www.scotusblog.com/2017/09/justices-issue-orders-long-conference/

[6] Brief of Petitioner at 19, McCoy v. Louisiana, 218 So. 3d 535 (La. 2016) (No. 16-8255).

[7] Id. at 2.

[8] Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175 (2004)

[9] Brief of Petitioner at 2, McCoy v. Louisiana, 218 So. 3d 535 (La. 2016) (No. 16-8255).

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Brief for The Cato Institute at 1, McCoy v. Louisiana, 218 So. 3d 535 (La. 2016) (No. 16-8255) (The Cato Institute is a nonpartisan public policy research foundation founded in 1977 and dedicated to advancing the principles of individual liberty, free markets, and limited government. Cato’s concern in this case is defending and securing the principle of defendant autonomy, and ensuring that the criminal defense bar functions as a check on government power through zealous representation of individual citizens – not as an arm of the state imposing its own view of the good on unwilling defendants.)

[13] Id.

Author: nkylrev

The Northern Kentucky Law Review, founded in 1973, is an independent journal, edited and published entirely by the students of NKU Chase College of Law.

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