April 11, 2018

Supreme Court Grants Relief to Capital Defendant Whose Lawyer Admitted Guilt Over His Client’s Wishes

Christina Mathieson Hughes, Staff Attorney

The United States Supreme Court decided McCoy v. Louisiana on May 14, 2018. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the six members of the majority, granted relief to Louisiana death row prisoner Robert McCoy, whose trial attorney repeatedly told the jury that his client was guilty, even though Mr. McCoy had urged him not to do so. Three justices—Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch—dissented and would have denied relief.

Mr. McCoy sought certiorari from the United States Supreme Court to resolve the question of whether it is unconstitutional for defense counsel to admit a client’s guilt over the client’s express objection. Two weeks before the guilt phase of Mr. McCoy’s bifurcated capital trial, defense counsel notified Mr. McCoy of his intent to concede guilt. Mr. McCoy adamantly opposed his counsel’s strategy and informed both counsel and the trial court of his opposition. Despite Mr. McCoy’s protests, defense counsel conceded guilt multiple times during the opening statement and closing arguments. A unanimous jury subsequently returned a guilty verdict. Mr. McCoy appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, where he lost, and then petitioned for review to the United States Supreme Court.

Once the Court granted certiorari, the American Bar Association filed an amicus brief in support of Mr. McCoy’s argument with the help of pro bono counsel from Boies, Schiller, Flexner, LLP. In sum, the ABA argued, “This case involves a foundational principle of the attorney-client relationship: an attorney serves the interests of his or her client, and must respect the client’s right to make fundamental decisions regarding the litigation of his or her case. There is no decision more fundamental in a criminal case than the decision whether to admit or contest guilt.”

The Court agreed with the ABA’s argument: “When a client expressly asserts that the objective of ‘his defense’ is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts, his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt.” Although Mr. McCoy’s counsel believed the prosecution’s evidence was overwhelming, defense counsel had a duty to comply with Mr. McCoy’s objective in maintaining his innocence.

The Court also followed the ABA amicus brief’s logic when distinguishing the related case of Florida v. Nixon. While Mr. McCoy repeatedly and ardently informed his counsel of his wish to contest evidence of guilt, Mr. Nixon remained silent. Mr. Nixon neither verbally approved nor protested counsel’s proposed suggested strategy before trial. Instead, Mr. Nixon complained about defense counsel’s admission of guilt after trial. As a result, at the time of trial, defense counsel for Mr. Nixon did not override Mr. Nixon’s autonomy.

The majority concluded its opinion in this case by finding that the error was “structural,” meaning the error affected “the framework within which the trial proceed[ed].” Because a structural error affects a right that protects an interest other than an erroneous conviction and might lead to results that are difficult to measure or signify fundamental unfairness, the petitioner asserting structural error need not demonstrate prejudice. As a result, the Court ordered McCoy be accorded a new trial. 

Christina Mathieson Hughes, Staff Attorney