U.S. Supreme Court

Can a lawyer concede guilt over a client's objection? Supreme Court to consider constitutional issue

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Updated: The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider the case of a Louisiana death row inmate who was unable to stop his lawyer from conceding guilt in the inmate’s trial for triple murder.

The Supreme Court granted cert on Thursday in the case of Robert Leroy McCoy, report the Associated Press and SCOTUSblog. The court agreed to consider Question 1 of the cert petition: whether it is unconstitutional for defense counsel to concede a defendant’s guilt over his express objection.

McCoy was sentenced to death in January 2012 for the May 2008 murders of the son, mother and stepfather of his estranged wife. McCoy’s parents hired Larry English to represent McCoy, paying him $5,000 borrowed against their car title.

McCoy refused his lawyer’s suggestion to accept a plea deal, and objected when English informed him he planned to concede guilt. The lawyer maintained the concession was necessary because he had an ethical duty to save McCoy’s life.

The trial court had refused McCoy’s request to fire English two days before the start of the trial and refused McCoy’s request to represent himself. When English conceded guilt during the opening statement, McCoy interrupted to protest. McCoy said it was known that police killed the victims, and the judge wanted to let the lawyer “throw away all aspects of my due process.”

McCoy later testified that a drug trafficking ring headed by law enforcement was responsible for the murders and had framed him.

English had argued that McCoy was guilty, but he was suffering from serious emotional issues that interfered with his ability to make rational decisions, according to the October 2016 Louisiana Supreme Court decision upholding the conviction. English’s goal was to spare McCoy the death penalty.

The Louisiana Supreme Court found no Sixth Amendment violation. “Given the circumstances of this crime and the overwhelming evidence incriminating the defendant, admitting guilt in an attempt to avoid the imposition of the death penalty appears to constitute reasonable trial strategy,” the court said.

The Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Promise of Justice Initiative filed an amicus brief (PDF) in the case. “An uncomfortable number of death sentences in Louisiana are the result of defendants representing themselves or defendants expressly objecting to their lawyers’ concessions of guilt,” the brief says.

“What can be distilled from Louisiana’s approach is that when a question about a defendant’s autonomy arises, Louisiana appears to resolve the question in favor of expediency, rather than autonomy or dignity.”

The case is McCoy v. Louisiana.

Updated at 1:49 p.m. to add link to cert petition.

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