Another Louisiana Capital Conviction Overturned for Lawyer Conceding Guilt Over Client’s Objection

The Louisiana Supreme Court has unanimously overturned the conviction of death-row prisoner Brian Douglas Horn (pictured), after Horn’s lawyer conceded—over Horn’s explicit objection—that his client had killed and also may have molested 12-year-old Justin Bloxom. The September 7, 2018 ruling is the latest fallout in Louisiana from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year in McCoy v. Louisiana, which declared that such concessions violate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel. Prior to and during trial, Horn told his lawyer and filed motions with the court saying that he did not want to concede guilt or admit he committed the crime. Horn’s lawyer ignored his client’s objections, telling the jury during closing argument, “We know that Brian Horn killed Justin Bloxom.… I’m not asking you to let him walk the streets. I’m not asking you to find him ‘not guilty.’” Instead, counsel suggested that Horn was guilty of either second-degree murder or manslaughter, neither of which carry the death penalty as a possible punishment. Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson wrote that this concession denied Horn the assistance of counsel in his defense and was a “structural error” that required overturning the conviction. “While conceding guilt in the hope of avoiding a death sentence may be a reasonable strategic decision in some cases, the decision to do so belongs to the defendant,” she said. The ruling echoed the language of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's 6-3 opinion for the Court in McCoy in which she stated, “With individual liberty—and, in capital cases, life—at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito likened the issue to “a rare plant that blooms every decade or so. Having made its first appearance today, the right is unlikely to figure in another case for many years to come.” However, a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in connection with McCoy’s case described a pattern of Louisiana state court rulings that have permitted capital defense counsel to concede guilt over their clients’ express objection or required capital defendants to represent themselves to avoid having their lawyer concede guilt. In a media statement at the time of the McCoy decision, his lawyer, Richard Bourke, said, “[w]hile rare in the rest of the country, ... Mr. McCoy’s was one of ten death sentences imposed in Louisiana since 2000 that have been tainted with the same flaw.” On June 25, in another of those cases, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision upholding the conviction of death-row prisoner Jeffrey Clark and returned the case to the state court for reconsideration in light of McCoy. Prosecutors in Horn’s case must now decide whether to appeal the decision and whether to again seek the death penalty if they retry the case.

(Stacy Cameron, Man convicted of kidnapping, killing 12-year-old boy gets new trial, KSLA 12 News, September 7, 2018; Kevin McGill, Conviction, death sentence overturned in murder of boy, 12, Associated Press, September 7, 2018.) Read the Louisiana Supreme Court's decision here. See Representation