A defense attorney in a Louisiana murder trial admitted to the jury that his client was guilty in an attempt to avoid the death penalty – even though his client told him not to do that.
But the strategy backfired, and the jury returned a guilty verdict and the death sentence.
Now the U.S. Supreme Court is facing the question of whether the defendant deserves a new trial because the lawyer disobeyed the client’s instructions.
The case of Robert McCoy, profiled at Scotusblog, developed in 2011, when he was tried on three counts of first-degree murder for the 2008 shootings of Christine and Willie Young, and Gregory Colston.
The Youngs were the mother and stepfather of McCoy’s estranged wife, Yolando, and Colston was her son.
“Although McCoy steadfastly maintained that he was innocent, his attorney took a different tack, conceding McCoy’s guilt in an unsuccessful attempt to spare his life,” the report said.
The case is set for arguments at the Supreme Court next week.
The justices will have to decide “whether the lawyer’s decisions was a reasonable effort to make the best of a bad situation or instead a violation of McCoy’s constitutional rights, entitling him to a new trial.”
McCoy first clashed with his public defenders over his defense when he insisted he was in Houston at the time of the murders and that he was being framed by police in retaliation for accusing local police of being involved in a drug ring.
But two of his friends testified McCoy was in Bossier Parish when the three died there.
His parents then hired attorney Larry English, who “refused to subpoena witnesses who McCoy believed would help to exonerate him,” the report said.
The lawyer told McCoy to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, and ultimately told McCoy he had an “ethical” duty to save his life, “even if that mean going against McCoy’s wishes.”
McCoy was stuck with the deal because the judge refused to let him fire the lawyer.
The lawyer’s strategy failed, and the jury convicted McCoy and sentenced him to death, a decision later affirmed by Louisiana state courts.
McCoy argues, the report explains, “the court has long recognized that, even if he accepts help from a lawyer, a criminal defendant has the right ‘to make certain basic decisions that shape his defense’ – including the choice between conceding guilt or going to trial and requiring prosecutors to prove their case.”
He argues that means English was prohibited from doing what he did.
The state case argues that in his representation by a lawyer, McCoy “necessarily gives up some autonomy.”
Louisiana argues that the lawyer didn’t need his client’s consent before adopting his course of action.
The report continues: “Among the ‘friend of the court’ briefs filed in the case is one from the Cato Institute, a libertarian group, supporting McCoy. Like McCoy, Cato characterizes the question before the court as one of personal autonomy, asserting that the ‘right to maintain one’s own innocence is perhaps more fundamental to American justice than any of the other rights encompassed within a defendant’s autonomy.’”