U.S. Supreme Court to Hear Louisiana Death Penalty Case Where Lawyer Conceded Guilt Over Client's Objection

The United States Supreme Court will review a Louisiana death-penalty case to answer the question "Is it unconstitutional for defense counsel to concede an accused’s guilt over the accused’s express objection?" On September 27, the court agreed to hear McCoy v. Louisiana, a case in which defense counsel informed the jury in his opening argument that Robert McCoy (pictured)—who was charged with murdering the son, mother, and stepfather of his estranged wife—had "committed these crimes," even though McCoy had consistently maintained his innocence and repeatedly objected to the defense strategy. The case is one of a number of Louisiana death penalty cases in which defense lawyers have told death penalty juries, against the defendant's wishes, that their clients had committed the killing. In McCoy's case, the prosecution offered a plea deal that McCoy turned down against the advice of his lawyer, Larry English. When English later told McCoy that he intended to concede McCoy's guilt, McCoy objected and tried to fire English two days before the start of the trial. The trial court refused to remove English from the case, and also denied McCoy’s request to represent himself. When English conceded guilt during the opening statement, McCoy interrupted, saying the police had killed the victims. He later took the stand and testified that he had been framed for the murders by a drug trafficking ring headed by law enforcement. McCoy's petition for review was supported with amicus (friend of the court) briefs by the Yale Law School Ethics Bureau and the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. English had argued that he had admitted guilt as part of his ethical duty to try to save McCoy’s life. The Ethics Bureau, however, argued that conceding McCoy's guilt over his express opposition was an "egregious" violation of the lawyer's ethical duty. It wrote that the rules of ethics "do not allow a lawyer to sell out his client in court against their wishes." The brief of the Louisiana defense lawyers, joined by the Promise of Justice Initiative, said the court's refusal to permit McCoy to obtain new counsel was emblematic of a pattern of decisions undermining the right to meaningful representation in Louisiana death penalty cases. The brief pointed to 12 capital cases in which Louisiana courts resolved disagreements between capital defendants and their lawyers in a manner that was detrimental to the defendant. The brief said that, in four cases since 2000, the Louisiana courts had allowed capital defense counsel to concede guilt over their clients’ express objection. In four other capital cases during that time frame, capital defendants were required to represent themselves to avoid having their lawyer concede guilt. Four other times, invoking the same right to personal autonomy over litigation decisions that they rejected in the prior circumstance, the state courts gave capital defendants who wanted to waive rights final say in doing so. “What can be distilled from Louisiana’s approach is that when a question about a defendant’s autonomy arises, Louisiana appears to resolve the question in favor of expediency, rather than autonomy or dignity,” the brief said. "Rather than a principled and consistent commitment to the autonomy and dignity of capital defendants, the Louisiana Supreme Court has adopted a set of rules that ameliorates always to the benefit of the state, and never to the defendant."

(M. Sherman, “Court to Rule When Lawyer Says 'Guilty,' but Client Objects,” Associated Press, September 28, 2017; D. Cassens Weiss, “Can a lawyer concede guilt over a client's objection? Supreme Court to consider constitutional issue,” ABA Journal, September 28, 2017.) Read the Supreme Court briefs filed by the parties and the friend-of-the-court briefs here. See Representation and U.S. Supreme Court.