Supreme Court Skeptical of Lawyer’s Conduct in Death Penalty Case

The decision by Larry English to concede that his client was guilty of killing three people in a bid to avoid the death penalty, rather than arguing his innocence, ended with his client being convicted and receiving a death sentence.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed inclined to side with Robert McCoy, who was sentenced to death in Louisiana after his own lawyer told the jury he was guilty of a triple murder.

Mr. McCoy had insisted that he was innocent and had told his lawyer, Larry English, that he wanted to clear his name. But Mr. English pursued a different strategy, hoping that a candid acknowledgment of his client’s guilt would earn him credibility during the trial’s sentencing phase.

Several justices said a decision as fundamental as admitting guilt in a capital case belonged to the client rather than the lawyer.

Justice Neil M. Gorsuch invoked the text of the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a right to “the assistance of counsel.”

“Can we even call it assistance of counsel?” he asked, referring to Mr. English’s conduct. “Is that what it is when a lawyer overrides that person’s wishes?”

Justice Elena Kagan said Mr. English may have been an effective lawyer but nonetheless one who had betrayed his client.

“There’s nothing wrong with what this lawyer did, if the goal is avoiding the death penalty,” she said. “The problem that this case presents is something different. It’s the lawyer’s substitution of his goal of avoiding the death penalty for the client’s goal.”

Mr. McCoy, she said, was entitled to take his chances if his “paramount goal” was to insist that he had not committed the murders.

Much of the discussion on Wednesday 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.

Seth P. Waxman, a lawyer for Mr. McCoy, said the Constitution guaranteed him the right to direct at least the most fundamental aspect of his defense.

“When a defendant maintains his innocence and insists on testing the prosecution on its burden of proof,” Mr. Waxman said, “the Constitution prohibits a trial court from permitting the defendant’s own lawyer, over the defendant’s objection, to tell the jury that he is guilty.”

But Elizabeth Murrill, Louisiana’s solicitor general, said lawyers should be able to ignore their client’s wishes in some cases.

“In a narrow class of death penalty cases,” she said, “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.”

Mr. McCoy was convicted of killing Christine Colston Young, Willie Young and Gregory Colston, who were the mother, stepfather and son of Mr. McCoy’s estranged wife. There was substantial evidence that he had done so and some reason to think that Mr. McCoy’s belief in his innocence was both earnest and delusional.

But there was no dispute about Mr. McCoy’s instruction to Mr. English. He was adamant that he was innocent and that others had committed the crimes. Mr. English disagreed.

“I met with Robert at the courthouse and explained to him that I intended to concede that he had killed the three victims,” Mr. English recalled in a sworn statement. “Robert was furious and it was a very intense meeting. He told me not to make that concession, but I told him that I was going to do so.”

During his opening statement at the trial, Mr. English did what he had promised. “I’m telling you,” he told the jury, “Mr. McCoy committed these crimes.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said there had been several questionable rulings in the case, suggesting that the precise problem in it was unlikely to recur. It was not clear, he said, that Mr. McCoy was competent to stand trial. It was possible that the trial judge should have allowed Mr. English to withdraw from the case, allowed Mr. McCoy more time to find another lawyer or allowed him to represent himself.

In the end, Mr. English’s trial strategy failed. Mr. McCoy was convicted and sentenced to death. He appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, saying his lawyer had betrayed him. The court ruled against him.

“Given the circumstances of this crime and the overwhelming evidence incriminating the defendant,” the court said, “admitting guilt in an attempt to avoid the imposition of the death penalty appears to constitute reasonable trial strategy.”

The decision relied on a unanimous 2004 ruling from the United States Supreme Court in Florida v. Nixon, which said lawyers need not obtain their clients’ express consent before conceding guilt in a capital case. But the ruling did not address whether it was permissible for a lawyer to disregard a client’s explicit instruction to the contrary.

That is the question in the case argued Wednesday, McCoy v. Louisiana, No. 16-8255.

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