(CN) — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a lawyer for a criminal defendant cannot ignore his client's wish to maintain his innocence at trial, even if the lawyer's aim is to avoid a death sentence.
Robert McCoy was charged with murdering his estranged wife's mother, stepfather and son, and throughout his trial he maintained his innocence, claiming he was out of state at the time of the murders.
During his trial, however, the presiding judge allowed McCoy's attorney, Larry English, to tell the jury that his client did indeed commit the murders. Hoping to spare McCoy the death penalty, English argued his client's mental state prevented him from forming the intent necessary for his deeds to qualify as capital crimes.
Despite his attorney's statements, McCoy continued to claim he was innocent, blaming the murders on rogue police officers who killed the family during a botched drug deal
The jury found McCoy guilty of three counts of first degree murder, and during the penalty phase of the trial, English again argued his client had mental and emotional issues and should be spared the death penalty. The jury disagreed, sentencing McCoy to death for each of the three murders.
After an unsuccessful bid for a new trial, McCoy appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which affirmed the trial court's ruling the English had the authority to supersede his client's wishes and entered a guilty plea on his behalf, despite the client's opposition.
On Monday, a majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices disagreed, holding that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to choose the nature of his defense and that because of the lawyer's actions, McCoy is entitled to a new trial.
"A defendant has the right to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty," Ginsburg wrote.
"With individual liberty — and, in capital cases, life—at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt," the justice added.
Justices Samuel Alito wrote a dissenting opinion, which Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas joined.
According to Alito, the majority erred because it overturned McCoy's conviction based on his attorney pleading guilty to first-degree murder on his behalf.
But Alito says this is "something that English never did."
"The Court holds that English violated petitioner’s constitutional rights by “admit[ting] h[is] client’s guilt of a charged crime over the client’s intransigent objection," Alito wrote. "But English did not admit that petitioner was guilty of first-degree murder. Instead, faced with overwhelming evidence that petitioner shot and killed the three victims, English admitted that petitioner committed one element of that offense, i.e., that he killed the victims.
"But English strenuously argued that petitioner was not guilty of first-degree murder because he lacked the intent ... required for the offense. ... the Court’s newly discovered fundamental right simply does not apply to the real facts of this case."
Alito also opined that "if petitioner is retried, it will be interesting to see what petitioner’s current counsel or any other attorney to whom the case is handed off will do. It is a safe bet that no attorney will put on petitioner’s conspiracy defense."
In a statement, McCoy's new attorney, Richard Bourke, said "the ruling restores in Louisiana the constitutional right of every individual to present their defense to a jury.
"While rare in the rest of the country, what happened to Mr. McCoy was a part of Louisiana’s broken criminal justice system that fails to respect individual human dignity," Bourke said. "Mr. McCoy’s was one of ten death sentences imposed in Louisiana since 2000 that have been tainted with the same flaw.
"Mr. McCoy’s case will now, for the first time, be investigated and litigated by a legal team intent on honoring his vehement protestations of innocence, rather than conceding his guilt," the attorney added.
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