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Who makes decisions Criminal Defense Lawyer or the client at issue in McCoy v. Louisiana

In McCoy v. Lousiana, the United States Supreme Court will address the issue of who has the authority to control the decision to admit guilt, the lawyer or the client.  Can the Lawyer for strategy reasons, concede guilt to avoid the death penalty?  This was the issue facing a criminal defense lawyer who despite his client’s wishes conceded guilty to spare his client the death penalty.  The strategy failed.  His client appealed to the United States Supreme Court arguing that a lawyer cannot concede guilty over his clear objection.

The defendant wanted to maintain his innocence, but the lawyer disagreed and required the defendant plead guilty in order to avoid the death penalty.  The issue raised by this case is that even if it is a good strategy to concede guilt, can the lawyer make that decision over the client’s objection.

In a criminal case, there are certain decisions that the client has absolute control over:

  1. Whether he or she testifies;
  2. Whether to have a trial in front of a judge or a jury;
  3. Whether to admit guilt or innocence in the case.

Clients have an absolute right to have their voice heard regardless of the attorneys’ opinion. If there is a disagreement, the lawyer may have to withdraw from representing the client. The client cannot be denied the right to testify, denied his right to a bench or jury trial, or forced to admit to a charge he does not wish to admit to.

There are some decisions that the lawyer can control, such as which witnesses to call and how to cross-examine them. These are strategic decisions but are not fundamental to the defendant’s right to a fair trial, such that the defendant has to consent to every detail on how the lawyer will carry out the representation.

The Supreme Court recently finished hearing oral arguments in the controversial case of Robert McCoy, who says that he should get a new trial because his defense lawyer told jurors that he was guilty.

The State of Louisiana previously outlined that when a defendant is charged with a criminal matter and subsequently hires defense counsel to represent him or her, the defendant “necessarily gives up some autonomy”, which essentially means the lawyer can make decisions on behalf of the defendant. However, in McCoy’s brief to the United States Supreme Court, he stated that a criminal defendant has the fundamental right to “make certain basic decisions that shape the defense”.

Defendant Robert McCoy, and his defense attorney, Larry English, had very different opinions when it came to his innocence at his trial on three counts of first-degree murder; McCoy insisted his innocence from the beginning, and because it was a capital case, his attorney thought it was in his best interest to admit to the murders; by making an admission of guilt but by showing the jurors that the acts were not done intentionally, McCoy could save himself from ultimately being put to death by the state.

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From the very beginning, McCoy insisted to law enforcement, the court system, as well as his attorney, that he had an alibi as he was not in the state at the time the murders occurred. However, English was firm in his strategy and insisted McCoy plead guilty to spare his life due to what he believed was an overwhelming case that the prosecution was preparing. However, the strategy ultimately failed and the jury found McCoy guilty of all three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced him to death.

During the Supreme Courts’ oral arguments, arguments for McCoy highlighted that the courts have no tangible policies that would warrant a new trial if a lawyer disregards his or her client’s wishes. McCoy’s original argument for the new trial was that, regardless of the evidence mounted against him, because he had a great deal of objection to pleading guilty, English’s decision to admit McCoy’s guilt completely changed the framework of the court proceeding.

The Supreme Court Justices seemed somewhat concerned about the issue in this case; Justice Elena Kagan said that she recognizes that the Supreme Court has given lawyers a great deal of discretion over decisions during their defense, but that attorneys should not be able to go forward with such a strategy if their client has an “overriding objective” of not admitting that he killed his family members. Justice Stephen Bryer seemed ethically disturbed by the case, highlighting the lack of control it seems defendants actually have over their own criminal case. You can read more about the oral arguments in the case by visiting the Supreme Court’s blog here.


 The Louisiana Supreme Court in McCoy ruled that it was a reasonable strategy to concede guilt and treated the claim as an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.  The court found that given the evidence that counsel’s strategy was a reasonable trial strategy.  

I would expect the United States Supreme Court to overturn this decision.  When a criminal defendant does not wish to concede guilt, the defendant’s Constitutional rights and individual autonomy should preclude a lawyer from conceding guilty over the client’s expressed objection.  

In some cases, counsel may concede guilt where the client has expressed no opinion on it.  This decision would be reviewed under a Sixth Amendment ineffective assistance of counsel standard.  In some cases, where there are different offenses before a jury, counsel may not stress one offense in hopes of achieving a split verdict.  Since that is not an expressed admission of guilt, it has been governed by the Sixth Amendment ineffective assistance of counsel case law.  

An admission of guilt over the client’s expressed objection violates the client’s rights under Sixth Amendment and 5th Amendment privileges against self-incrimination.  

A lawyers decision to concede guilt overrides the ability of the client to testify on his own behalf which has been regarded as a fundamental right that cannot be deprived of a defendant.  I would expect the United States Supreme Court to hold that the decision to admit guilt is a fundamental right that cannot be deprived by the lawyer regardless of strategic reasons for the concessions.  

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of needing an attorney who will stick by your side and represent you in a court of law, feel free to contact a DelSignore Law Attorney today. We have successfully worked with hundreds of clients and will take the time to answer your questions and listen to any and all of your concerns.

If you have been charged with a serious criminal offense, please consider contacting us. You can read more about the court process and some of our criminal case victories for our clients on our website today.

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