Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Sixth Amendment - Assistance of Counsel - Capital Punishment - McCoy V. Louisiana

Academic journal article Harvard Law Review

Sixth Amendment - Assistance of Counsel - Capital Punishment - McCoy V. Louisiana

Article excerpt

Where a criminal defendant's authority over his trial ends and defense counsel's begins is a murky area of constitutional law. One question in particular has risen to state supreme courts and the U.S. Supreme Court multiple times in recent decades: whether a defense attorney can admit her client's guilt without the client's consent. This question often arises in capital cases, where the bifurcation of trials incentivizes concession strategies. In Florida v. Nixon, (1) the Supreme Court held that a defense attorney may admit a client's guilt when the client is unresponsive; express consent is not required. (2) The Nixon Court did not answer the logical corollary: Can defense counsel concede guilt when her client explicitly objects? Last Term, in McCoy v. Louisiana, (3) the Supreme Court held that a defendant's Sixth Amendment rights are violated when counsel admits guilt over the defendant's express objections. (4) In principle, McCoy champions defendant autonomy and was rightly decided. In practice, however, McCoy is less protective of defendants' rights than it appears on its face. McCoy excludes from federal habeas relief a range of defendants with valid McCoy claims and bears dangerous implications for defendants who lack the mental competence to stand trial. McCoy should have addressed head-on the thorny practical dilemmas it creates by providing direction to federal and state courts tasked with implementing the decision.

In 2008, Robert McCoy was charged with murdering three members of his estranged wife's family in Bossier City, Louisiana. (5) An investigation yielded overwhelming evidence that McCoy committed the crime, and the prosecution sought the death penalty. (6) From the start, McCoy maintained his innocence. He argued that while he was in Texas, corrupt police officers killed the victims over a soured drug deal and launched a conspiracy to frame McCoy for the crime. (7) McCoy's appointed public defenders were unwilling to pursue his defense narrative, so he sought alternate representation. (8) His parents pulled together $5000 to retain Larry English, a local attorney who was not capital certified. (9)

Like the public defenders, English was unwilling to pursue McCoy's alibi, which he considered "delusion[al]." (10) A court-appointed sanity commission found McCoy competent to stand trial, but English remained convinced of his incompetence and moved for a continuance to allow for a more thorough mental evaluation. (11) Addressing the judge, McCoy protested, "There is ... nothing wrong with me.... Mr. English wants the Court to believe something is wrong with me.... I'm fully competent." (12) The motion for a continuance was denied. (13)

English and McCoy also disagreed over whether to concede guilt. When English informed McCoy two weeks before trial of his plan to admit guilt, McCoy rejected the strategy and attempted to fire English, but the court prohibited the last-minute change. (14) Still, English refused to follow McCoy's direction, believing, "I have no ethical duty as a lawyer to hold Mr. McCoy's hand while he walks into the death chamber.... I have an ethical duty ... [to] do the ... best I can to save his life." (15)

At trial, English conceded that McCoy murdered the decedents. His opening statement declared, "'[T]here is no way reasonably possible that you can listen to the evidence in this case' and not conclude that McCoy was 'the cause of these individuals' death.' ... 'I've just told you he's guilty.'" (16) McCoy protested that English was "selling [him] out," yet the judge allowed the concession and prohibited additional "outbursts" from McCoy. (17) After cross-examining his own client to highlight the lunacy of McCoy's alibi, English argued that McCoy committed the killings but, due to his diminished capacity, lacked the intent necessary for first-degree murder. (18) During the penalty phase of trial, English's only witness --the same psychologist who found McCoy competent to stand trial--asserted that McCoy lacked any "mental illness that would interrupt his ability to know right from wrong regarding the . …

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