Published on: Monday, May 14, 2018

In a 6 to 3 decision in McCoy v. Louisiana, No. 16-8255, the Supreme Court voted in favor of a Louisiana death row inmate, holding “that 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.”

Petitioner Robert McCoy was charged with three capital murders in Louisiana and pleaded not guilty. He “vociferously insisted that he did not engage in

the charged acts and adamantly objected to any admission of guilt.” Despite this, the trial court permitted defense counsel to tell the jury during the guilt phase that the defendant “committed three murders. . . .[H]e’s guilty.”  Defense counsel argued that McCoy lacked the specific intent necessary to commit first degree murder because of his mental and emotional issues—a strategy defense counsel believed was the only way to avoid the death penalty in light of the evidence.  Contradicting his attorney, McCoy testified in his own defense and told the jury he was innocent and that corrupt police officers had framed him for the murders.  McCoy was convicted and sentenced to death.    

Writing for the Court, Justice Ginsburg said that McCoy must be given a new trial, explaining:

Guaranteeing a defendant the right “to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence,” the Sixth Amendment so demands. 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.

Emphasizing an accused's personal “autonomy,” the Court reaffirmed a distinction between trial decisions that are within the “lawyer’s province” and those “reserved for the client”:

Trial management is the lawyer’s province: Counsel provides his or her assistance by making decisions such as “what arguments to pursue, what evidentiary objections to raise, and what agreements to conclude regarding the admission of evidence.” Gonzalez v. United States, 553 U. S. 242, 248 (2008) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Some decisions, however, are reserved for the client—notably, whether to plead guilty, waive the right to a jury trial, testify in one’s own behalf, and forgo an appeal. See Jones v. Barnes, 463 U. S. 745, 751 (1983).

Autonomy to decide that the objective of the defense is to assert innocence belongs in this latter category. Just as a defendant may steadfastly refuse to plead guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence against her, or reject the assistance of legal counsel despite the defendant’s own inexperience and lack of professional qualifications, so may she insist on maintaining her innocence at the guilt phase of a capital trial. These are not strategic choices about how best to achieve a client’s objectives; they are choices about what the client’s objectives in fact are.

Justice Alito, joined by Justices Gorsuch and Thomas, dissented.  The Training Division provides resources and materials for federal capital trial and habeas counsel through the Capital Defense Network.