In 2011, Robert McCoy was facing three counts of murder and, if convicted, a trip to Louisiana’s death row.
He had fired his original public defenders after not seeing eye-to-eye with them, and his family had hired a criminal defense attorney named Larry English to take their place. When English said he wanted to admit McCoy’s guilt in court in the hopes that it might bolster his credibility with the jury (and maybe even prevent a death sentence), McCoy protested. He wanted English to maintain his innocence, arguing local police had framed him for the murders to cover up a drug smuggling ring they were running. Despite his client’s objections, English told the jury that the evidence pointed to his client as the culprit of the murders.
So, was it unconstitutional for English to do this?
This question is at the heart of oral arguments being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court today. McCoy wants a new trial because he says his Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel was violated when English refused to maintain his innocence in court. The state of Louisiana says that while some cases do require a client’s consent before moving ahead with a legal strategy, that this case wasn’t one of them, and cited a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court case which ruled, in part, that an attorney admitting a client’s guilt does not equate to a guilty plea.
Where do you come down on this case? Was McCoy’s right to assistance of counsel violated? Or was English’s strategy of admitting guilt to save his client’s life the best option? Where do you think the line is between being in charge of your own defense and deferring to your attorney?
Daniel Suleiman, partner at the Washington D.C. offices of Covington & Burling and a former senior official in the U.S. Department of Justice Criminal Division from 2010-2013
Stanley Goldman, professor of law at Loyola Law School and former deputy public defender for Los Angeles County