U.S. Supreme Court

Gorsuch questions whether lawyer who conceded client's guilt provided assistance of counsel

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U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Justice Neil Gorsuch was among the justices on Wednesday who appeared to see merit in the case of a death-row defendant whose lawyer conceded guilt in a triple murder, despite the defendant’s express objection.

Lawyer Seth Waxman of Wilmer Cutler argued that defendant Robert McCoy’s Sixth Amendment rights were violated when the lawyer conceded guilt in hopes of avoiding the death penalty. Gorsuch questioned whether the lawyer’s decision could be viewed as assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment.

“Can we even call it assistance of counsel?” Gorsuch asked. “Is that what it is when a lawyer overrides that person’s wishes?” The New York Times, the National Law Journal, Reuters and USA Today covered the arguments.

Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill argued that lawyers should be able to ignore their client’s wishes in “a narrow class of death penalty cases”—when the client wants to pursue a strategy that is “a futile charade” that defeats the objective of avoiding the death penalty.

The lawyer who represented McCoy, Larry English, has said he believed the evidence against McCoy was overwhelming and conceding guilt was the best strategy to avoid the death penalty. English told the jury that McCoy had “snapped,” part of an argument that his mental state meant he wasn’t guilty of first-degree murder.

According to the New York Times account, a U.S. Supreme Court majority appeared to agree with McCoy on the constitutional issue. Much of the argument “involved a search for a constitutional line that would afford Mr. McCoy a new trial but not allow all disgruntled clients to second-guess their lawyers’ strategic decisions,” the article reports.

Related articles:

ABAJournal.com: “Can a lawyer concede guilt over a client’s objection? Supreme Court to consider constitutional issue”

ABAJournal.com: “Sixth Amendment bars lawyer from overriding client’s decision to contest guilt, ABA brief says”

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