Facts of the Case
Robert McCoy was arrested on May 9, 2008, for the first-degree murders of the son, mother, and step-father of his estranged wife in a May 5, 2008, shooting. On May 15, 2008, McCoy was found to be indigent and appointed a public defender. Throughout his representation by the public defender and his subsequent representation by retained counsel McCoy maintained his innocence and repeatedly stated his desire to plead not guilty. In December 2009, McCoy moved for his public defender to be removed due to his belief that the public defenders were doing nothing to assist him in proving his innocence. The court granted McCoy’s motion to represent himself until he could find substitute counsel. McCoy subsequently found new counsel to represent him, and his counsel advised him to take a plea. When McCoy refused to take a plea, his counsel notified him that he intended to concede guilt, after which time McCoy moved to discharge him. The court denied McCoy’s motion to discharge his attorney as untimely. His counsel proceeded to concede McCoy’s guilt and argued for verdicts of second-degree murder on a theory of diminished capacity. The jury returned a verdict of first-degree murder on all three counts and recommended the death penalty.
The Louisiana Supreme Court denied the appeal and affirmed the convictions and the sentence, reasoning that defense counsel’s failure to follow McCoy’s direction not to concede guilt did not deny Mr. McCoy the assistance of counsel or create a conflict of interest because it did not completely abdicate the defense. Rather, the decision to concede guilt was a strategic choice by counsel.
Does it violate a criminal defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel if defense counsel concedes the defendant’s guilt over the defendant’s express objection?
Inherent in the Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel is the autonomy right of a criminal defendant to choose the objective of his defense and insist that counsel not admit guilt, even if the counsel's experience-based view is that admitting guilt offers the best chance of avoiding the death penalty. In a 6-3 opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Court distinguished decisions that may be made by counsel and those reserved to the client. Counsel may make decisions described as "trial management" such as whether to call a particular witness or raise certain objections to evidence. Reserved exclusively to the client are decisions including whether to plead guilty, waive the right to a jury trial, testify in one's own behalf, and forgo an appeal. Whether to assert innocence as a defense is also within those decisions reserved to the client. Because the issue presented in this case involves client autonomy, not effectiveness of counsel, the error is considered "structural error" and is not subject to harmless-error review.
Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch joined. In the dissent's view, the Court's holding arbitrarily distinguishes between counsel's conspicuously omitting discussion of one element of a crime and expressly conceding that element. The dissent further criticizes the majority for reaching an overly broad holding despite the unusual circumstances of the particular case before it.
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