November 21, 2017

ABA asks high court to overturn conviction in case where counsel conceded guilt over client’s wishes

CHICAGO, Nov. 21, 2017 — The American Bar Association filed an amicus brief Monday with the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing in a Louisiana capital murder case that it is unconstitutional for a defense attorney to concede a defendant’s guilt over the expressed objection of the accused.


The case, on appeal from the Louisiana Supreme Court, raises the broader issue of decision-making in the attorney-client relationship and whether the client has the right to set the objective of his or her representation as well as the proper role of an attorney when his or her client strenuously objects to the lawyer’s strategy and presentation at trial.


In this case, defendant Robert McCoy, subsequently convicted of the murders of his estranged wife’s son, mother and stepfather, attempted to advance his innocence claim but was contradicted by his lawyer from the outset of the trial to the end. Specifically, court-appointed counsel Larry English conceded McCoy’s guilt to the jury in hopes of saving his life. The ABA brief noted that under model rules of professional conduct, English could have refused to participate in any affirmative defense that he knew to be false but could not impose a “concession strategy over Mr. McCoy’s repeated and strenuous objections.”


“A mentally competent client has the right to decide whether to contest or admit guilt,” the ABA brief said. “Mr. English’s usurpation of Mr. McCoy’s clearly-expressed decision to contest guilt at trial, however well intended, violated the principles underlying the proper role of counsel in an attorney-client relationship as laid out in the Constitution and the rules, guidelines, and standards of the ABA and the Louisiana State Bar Association.”


The brief argued that the Louisiana Supreme Court, which affirmed the convictions, erred in its conclusion that the lawyer’s conduct was necessary to avoid violating his duty of candor toward the trial court by eliciting false or perjured testimony. “The prohibition against offering false evidence only applies if the lawyer knows that the evidence is false,” the brief said. “A lawyer’s reasonable belief that evidence is false does not preclude its presentation to the trier of fact.”


The amicus brief in Robert M. McCoy v. State of Louisiana is available here.


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