Robert McCoy faced trial for a triple murder. The evidence of his guilt was overwhelming. The penalty was death.
Knowing his client had practically no chance of acquittal, McCoy’s lawyer, Larry English, made a remarkable decision — he conceded McCoy’s guilt at the beginning of the trial, in a bid to build credibility with the jury.
“I know that Robert was completely opposed to me telling the jury that he was guilty of killing the three victims,” English wrote in an affidavit. “But I believed that this was the only way to save his life.”
The Supreme Court will decide Wednesday whether a lawyer may admit his client’s guilt to a jury, despite his objections.
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The case, McCoy v. Louisiana, was occasioned by the 2008 murders of Christine Young, Willie Young and Gregory Colston, relations of McCoy’s estranged wife, in Bossier, La. Police assembled substantial evidence of McCoy’s guilt, and both a 911 call and police witnesses placed him at the scene at the time of the murder. When apprehended, police found the murder weapon in his possession. Moreover, McCoy’s brother and two longtime friends told police that he confessed his guilt to them.
Before trial, English advised McCoy to enter a guilty plea, as the state would not seek the death penalty if he confessed to the crimes. McCoy refused, adamantly pleading his innocence.
English believed he would forfeit his credibility with the jury if he helped McCoy mount a defense, credibility he would desperately need at the sentencing phase if he were to convince jurors to spare McCoy’s life. His client’s objections notwithstanding, English made no attempt to defend his client at trial, telling jurors during his opening statement that McCoy committed the murders.
“I’ve just told you he’s guilty,” he told the jury.
English’s plan made no difference. After conviction, McCoy was sentenced to death.
McCoy is now asking the Supreme Court for a new trial, arguing that the trial court violated his Sixth Amendment right to counsel by allowing his lawyer to confess his guilt against his wishes.
“That choice is the defendant’s core entitlement, without which none of the procedural protections the Constitution guarantees the defendant in a criminal prosecution has genuine meaning,” McCoy’s brief reads. “A trial in which the defendant is deprived of this core right is no trial at all.”
Louisiana state lawyers counter that he made a strategic decision to save his client’s life, and that attorneys must be allowed some tactical leeway, especially in capital cases.
During oral arguments Tuesday, the justices appeared to sympathize with McCoy, though they struggled to define a general rule for future cases.
Justice Neil Gorsuch agreed that it was difficult to square English’s strategy with the Constitution, which guarantees legal counsel for criminal defendants.
“Can we even call it assistance of counsel?” he asked. “Is that what it is when a lawyer overrides that person’s wishes?”
But Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill warned that capital lawyers have a duty to save their clients’ lives, especially where the strategy a client is proposing is a “futile charade.”
“In a narrow class of death penalty classes, counsel sometimes might be required to override his client on a trial strategy when the strategy that the client wants counsel to pursue is a futile charade and requires him to defeat both their objectives of defeating the death penalty,” she said.
A decision is expected by June.
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