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December 18, 2018

Court Upholds Capital Defendant’s Right to Assert Innocence at Trial

On May 14, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in McCoy v. Louisiana, a capital case concerning a defendant’s right to assert his innocence, even when trial counsel recommends conceding guilt. With Justice Ginsburg writing for the majority, the Court held that death-row prisoner Robert McCoy’s Sixth Amendment rights were violated by his attorney’s statements to the jury that Mr. McCoy was guilty of murdering the victims, over his client’s repeated explicit instructions not to do so. The trial attorney argued that the admission of guilt was in the client’s best interest, reasoning that it was better to focus instead on seeking mercy during the punishment phase of trial. The Court rejected this justification, finding that where a defendant has explicitly communicated to his attorney that he does not wish to concede guilt—and the attorney disregards these explicit wishes—the defendant has been deprived of his constitutional right to counsel. Justice Ginsburg wrote, “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.”

Unlike in most cases challenging the performance of counsel, the Supreme Court found that Mr. McCoy was not required to show that his counsel’s error likely affected the outcome of the trial. Instead, the Court held that counsel’s admission of guilt constituted structural error entitling Mr. McCoy to a new trial without the need to show prejudice. In dissent, Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, first noted that counsel for Mr. McCoy had not admitted his client was guilty of first-degree murder as charged, but rather only conceded that he had factually killed the victims; and second, that the scenario presented by the case was so rare as not to warrant Supreme Court review. The ABA filed an amicus brief in support of Mr. McCoy, arguing—as the majority would later hold—that under these narrow circumstances, the client has the authority to determine whether to concede guilt, and that the actions of Mr. McCoy’s trial counsel violated his Sixth Amendment rights.