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Justices Appear Sympathetic to Louisiana Death-Row Prisoner Whose Trial Lawyer Conceded Guilt

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court appeared to be favoring arguments presented by Louisiana death-row prisoner Robert McCoy (pictured), who was convicted and sentenced to death after his lawyer, in the face of repeated instructions from his client to argue his innocence, instead told the jury that McCoy had killed three family members. McCoy's trial lawyer, Larry English, said he ignored his client's instructions and conceded guilt hoping jurors would then vote against the death penalty because McCoy had "serious emotional issues" that prevented him from "function[ing] in society" or "mak[ing] rational decisions." News coverage of the January 17 oral argument in McCoy v. Louisiana reports that the justices were in "broad agreement" with McCoy's position and "seemed sympathetic to his plight." The question debated during the hour-long Supreme Court argument was "whether the right to a lawyer that’s guaranteed by the Constitution is meaningful if, even with the best intentions, he can ignore his client’s wishes." Seth Waxman, former U.S. Solicitor General under the Clinton Administration, argued on behalf of McCoy, saying that "when a defendant maintains his innocence and insists on testing the prosecution on its burden of proof" then the Sixth Amendment right to counsel "prohibits a trial court from permitting the defendant's own lawyer, over the defendant's objection, to tell the jury that he is guilty." The state's attorney, Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill, argued for what the state charcterized as a "narrow exception" that would allow a defense lawyer in a capital case to override the client's wishes and admit the client's guilt if the lawyer believed that was necessary to save the client's life. But even Justices Gorsuch and Alito—two of the Court's most conservative justices—seemed to agree in some respects with McCoy's position. Justice Gorsuch asked Murrill why the error at trial was not "a total denial of the assistance of counsel" and said that the right to counsel included "not to have an agent of the state assist the state in prosecuting you." Justice Alito expressed exasperation that the case had even reached this point, questioning the trial court decisions finding McCoy competent to stand trial and refusing to allow English to withdraw from the case. "[I]f somebody like McCoy really sincerely believes that he did not commit these physical acts, but it was all done by—as part of an elaborate conspiracy, is he—is he capable of assisting in his own defense?," Alito asked. Justices Breyer and Kagan voiced sympathy for English, who they believed was trying to save McCoy's life. Justice Kennedy, often the swing vote in death-penalty cases, asked the Louisiana Solicitor General a single line of questions: was it Louisiana's position that, if "a defendant [in a capital case] wants to plead not guilty, the defense attorney can plead guilty if the defense attorney thinks that's the best way to avoid the death penalty?" When the solicitor general said that a lawyer could not do that, Kennedy followed up, asking "How is that proposition any different from what really happened in this case?" A decision is expected by the end of June 2018.


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U.S. Supreme Court Orders Federal Appeals Court to Reconsider Case Involving Racially Biased Juror

The U.S. Supreme Court has directed a federal appeals court to reconsider whether Georgia death-row prisoner Keith Tharpe (pictured) is entitled to federal court review of his claim that he was unconstitutionally sentenced to death because he is black. On January 8, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 6-3 opinion sending Tharpe's case—in which a racist juror used an offensive slur to describe the defendant and doubted whether African Americans have souls—back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit for further consideration whether the federal courts should hear his claim of juror bias. Seven years after Tharpe was sentenced to death, his attorneys obtained a sworn affidavit reviewed and initialed by Barney Gattie, a white man who served as a juror at Tharpe's trial. In his statement, Gattie said, "After studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls," and, "there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Ni[**]ers." Gattie also expressed his belief that Tharpe "wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, [and] should get the electric chair for what he did." According to Gattie, the victim was one of the "nice black folks," but "[i]f [the victim] had been the type Tharpe is, then picking between life and death for Tharpe wouldn’t have mattered so much." Despite these statements, the Georgia state courts rejected Tharpe’s racial-bias claim after prosecutors obtained a second affidavit from Gattie asserting that he was not a bigot. State prosecutors have not denied that Gattie made these statements, but have attempted to defend them by saying that Gattie had been drinking when he signed the affidavit. The Georgia federal courts had also denied Tharpe relief on the claim, deferring to the fact-finding of the state courts that Gattie's bigoted statements were not prejudicial. However, in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court decided two major cases that Tharpe said required the federal courts to reconsider his claim:  Buck v. Davis, a Texas death-penalty case in which the racially biased testimony of an expert witness created an unacceptable risk that Buck was sentenced to death because he was black, and Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado, a case that overturned a state-court rule that prevented defendants from using racially biased statements made by a juror as evidence of juror misconduct during deliberations. Georgia was scheduled to execute Tharpe in September 2017, but the Supreme Court granted him a last-minute stay to decide whether to review his case. The Court ultimately accepted review of the case, issued a per curiam ruling in Tharpe v. Sellers  without further briefing or argument, and returned the case to the Eleventh Circuit, which must now consider whether to issue a Certificate of Appealability—a procedural prerequisite to considering an issue on appeal. Brian Kammer, Tharpe's attorney, said, "We are thankful that the U.S. Supreme Court recognized the serious implications for fundamental fairness of the clear evidence of racial animus on the part of one of the jurors who sentenced Mr. Tharpe to death." Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, joined by Justices Alito and Gorsuch, criticizing the Court for interfering in the case and failing to respect the lower courts' judgments.


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