On November 20, 2017, the American Bar Association submitted an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Louisiana death row prisoner Robert McCoy in McCoy v. Louisiana.
At trial, Mr. McCoy’s attorney repeatedly conceded his client’s guilt, in direct opposition to his client’s express wishes to contest guilt. Prior to trial, Mr. McCoy attempted to dismiss his counsel after learning that the lawyer planned to concede guilt, but the court refused to honor Mr. McCoy’s request. Mr. McCoy then objected to his lawyer’s concession of guilt during opening arguments. In response, the judge threatened to remove Mr. McCoy from the courtroom. Mr. McCoy later took the stand in his own defense and asserted his innocence, directly contradicting his lawyer.
The jury returned a guilty verdict and death sentence, and Mr. McCoy filed an appeal. He claimed that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer. He argued that there can be no attorney-client relationship where the attorney refuses to follow his client’s wishes on such a fundamental aspect of the representation.
In its brief in support of Mr. McCoy’s position, the ABA emphasized a death penalty defendant’s constitutional right to counsel and the primacy of the attorney-client relationship. As laid out in the ABA’s and the Louisiana State Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which provide guidance concerning the actions and role of defense counsel, a mentally competent client has the right to decide whether to contest or admit guilt. The ABA also pointed out Mr. McCoy’s counsel’s behavior belied the notion of an attorney as the client’s assistant, discussed in Faretta v. California (1975).
The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in McCoy on January 17, 2018.