The US Supreme Court is hearing a case right now related to whether a lawyer has the right to override a client’s wishes to plead Not Guilty and not to admit guilt.
Here are the facts of the case: Robert McCoy was arrested and charged with the brutal murder of his wife’s parents and son in Louisiana. Throughout the trial, he maintained with confidence that he was not only “not guilty,” but completely innocent. For various reasons, the state refused to allow him to present a witness who would have served as an alibi, and the rest of the evidence putting him at the scene of the crime was very damning.
As the trial drew to a close, his lawyer Larry English thought his client’s battle to be uphill and losing steam, so to potentially save his client’s life, he executed a tricky maneuver. Without changing his client’s plea of “not guilty,” the lawyer allocuted to the crime on behalf of his client with the hope that, when the guilty verdict came in, the jurors and the judge wouldn’t push for the death penalty and instead believe that McCoy was not in his right mind at the time of the murders.
Robert McCoy was furious about his lawyer’s defense, as his position throughout the duration of the proceedings was that he did not kill his family, and his lawyer directly contradicted him before the jury. McCoy was found guilty and sentenced to death, but filed a suit claiming that his sixth amendment rights to effective counsel had been violated because his lawyer actively worked against his wishes.
In cases where the death penalty on the table, lawyers will occasionally deploy a strategy where they appeal to the juror’s sense of compassion and understanding by admitting guilt, even when the defendant has submitted a not guilty plea. In an attempt to curry some favor with the jurors and demonstrate taking responsibility for actions, lawyers have taken this circuitous path and hoped for the best.
It’s also been a long-held precedent that, when a lawyer and their client disagree on matters of strategy, the lawyer’s decision prevails. It’s the job of a lawyer to advocate for the wishes of their client and defend them to the best of their abilities, but sometimes, clients and lawyers disagree on what that means. Past Supreme Court decisions have ruled to this effect, not out of distrust for citizens, but rather to protect them. The constitution already has laws in place that ensure that citizens have the right to effective counsel, and if that counsel should appear in court drunk or sleep through the case, the citizen is entitled to a change of counsel to ensure a fair trial.
In this very specific case, the Justices have to decide a very narrow question: does a lawyer have a right to imply guilt when their client maintains innocence? When the Supreme Court resumes its winter session, we’ll see how the justices are leaning.