WASHINGTON (CN) – A man on death row whose lawyer undercut his vigorous proclamations of innocence by conceding guilt at trial found a sympathetic ear Wednesday at the U.S. Supreme Court.
“People can walk themselves into jail,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. “They can walk themselves, regrettably, into the gas chamber. But they have a right to tell their story.”
At the same time, however, the justices struggled to find the line at which attorneys are free to dispense with their clients’ most unreasonable requests.
“Suppose the opinion were to say in this case the lawyer explicitly said to the jury he is guilty of the crime charged,” Justice Stephen Breyer said. “That the Sixth Amendment forbids. But the rest of these complicated matters, whether it’s elements, whether it’s this, whether it’s that, we leave, at least for now, we leave to the law schools, the bars, the ethics classes and the others because we don’t want to freeze the answer into the Sixth Amendment.”
The case before the court Wednesday concerns Robert McCoy, whom a Louisiana jury convicted in August 2011 of killing the parents and teenage son of his estranged wife.
McCoy, who was arrested in Idaho days later, claimed he had been out of the state when the murders took place and that police were framing him. McCoy claimed police killed his three relatives after a botched drug deal and promised to produce witnesses and evidence to prove it all.
After butting heads with his public defender in December 2009, McCoy briefly represented himself while his family found a new lawyer. The family hired Larry English in March 2010, but McCoy eventually soured on English as well, claiming the lawyer would not support his requests to subpoena witnesses who would corroborate his conspiracy claim.
Mere days before the trial, English told McCoy for the first time that he would concede to the jury that McCoy committed the murders, hinging the defense on McCoy’s mental capacity.
The trial judge blocked McCoy from firing English, who went on to tell the jury in his opening statement that McCoy was guilty and that the evidence against him was “overwhelming.”
English’s plan did not work and the jury convicted McCoy on all three murder counts. At the penalty phase, English did not call any mitigating witnesses, opting to call only a psychologist who found McCoy competent to stand trial.
The psychologist told the jury McCoy was a narcissist with “no real self inside.” The jury recommended McCoy receive the death penalty.
McCoy’s efforts for a new trial have thus far unsuccessful. His latest attorney, Seth Waxman, argued Wednesday that a lawyer cannot decide whether to concede their client’s guilt.
“The Sixth Amendment guarantees a personal defense that belongs to the accused, and whether to contest or admit guilt is the paradigmatic example of that personal defense, not only because it singularly affects the life and liberty of the accused, but also because making that decision requires weighing subjective aspirations and value judgments that are unique to every individual,” said Waxman, an attorney with WilmerHale.
Waxman said McCoy’s objection to English’s plan was very different from those a defendant might raise about the his lawyer’s trial strategy. When the justices pressed him on whether there was any way for English to use McCoy’s mental state as a defense, Waxman said the lawyer could have made that argument without conceding his client’s guilt.
But Chief Justice John Roberts was concerned about how far Waxman’s argument might extend, wondering if it would give uninformed defendants too much ability to override the decisions of their advocates.
“Your position is not limited to where the lawyer admits a client’s guilt, it goes beyond that?” Roberts asked.
Waxman proposed a ruling that says attorneys cannot overrule their clients on issues related to elements of a crime. The attorney emphasized, however, the court does not have to decide the issue to rule in McCoy’s favor.
Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill argued the case does not involve McCoy’s Sixth Amendment rights, but instead falls under an ineffective assistance of counsel standard.
Since this standard requires a party show both deficiency and prejudice, Murrill said McCoy’s case is baseless.
Murrill also argued McCoy was a particularly difficult client and that English was right to not abandon a path he believed best to save McCoy’s life in favor of pursuing McCoy’s conspiracy theory. She also disputed that McCoy’s main objection was to avoid admitting to killing family members.
“I would describe it more as though he said I know a better way to cross this divide, and we’re going to cross it by letting me drive this car over the cliff because the car will fly,” Murrill said.
But Justice Elena Kagan, echoing Waxman’s earlier point, noted English’s decision ignored McCoy’s goals in the case.
“It’s the lawyer’s substitution of his goal of avoiding the death penalty for the client’s goal, as the chief justice said, I don’t care about that,” Kagan said. “I don’t want to avoid the death penalty. That’s not my paramount goal. My paramount goal is to insist until my last breath that I didn’t kill my family members.”