May 18, 2018

U.S. Supreme Court Rules in McCoy v. Louisiana that Defense Counsel Must Follow the Client’s Wishes in Maintaining Innocence, Despite Risk of Death Penalty

On Monday, May 14, the U.S. Supreme Court in McCoy v. Louisiana held that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant’s right to insist that his or her legal counsel refrain from admitting guilt even if the counsel believes that admission is the best strategy for avoiding the death penalty.

Robert McCoy was accused of shooting and killing three people in Bossier City, Louisiana in 2008. Mr. McCoy has consistently maintained that he is innocent, claiming that he was out of the state when the killings occurred and that police officers shot the victims.  However, the defense lawyer appointed to represent Mr. McCoy at trial believed that the evidence against him was “overwhelming” and that, absent a concession that Mr. McCoy did kill the victims, a death sentence would be inevitable. Despite Mr. McCoy’s express rejection of this plan, his counsel openly declared during the 2011 trial that Mr. McCoy was indeed the killer, but did not have the mental capacity to commit first-degree murder, and urged the jury to be merciful in sentencing. Mr. McCoy made several objections to his trial lawyer’s concessions during trial and repeatedly requested a new lawyer, which the judge denied. Mr. McCoy appealed, arguing that he was denied effective counsel, but the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected the claim, finding that it was within a defense counsel’s prerogative to concede guilt. On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ABA filed an amicus brief in favor of Mr. McCoy in 2017, arguing that the decision of whether to concede guilt must be reserved for the client because the role of counsel is to assist in achieving the client’s objectives.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the ABA’s position, finding that while defense counsel may make strategic choices regarding “[t]rial management,” defendants are accorded autonomy to decide the objective of their defense—including the decision to maintain their innocence. Thus, his trial counsel was not allowed to override Mr. McCoy’s objection to conceding guilt. Moreover, the Court found that the concession was a structural error, violating a fundamental principle related to a criminal defendant’s autonomy and requiring a new trial as the remedy.