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On May 14, 2018, the Supreme Court decided McCoy v. Louisiana, a case considering whether defense counsel may--against the defendant’s express wishes--concede his client’s guilt in an effort to avoid the death penalty.

In 2008, Robert McCoy was indicted on three counts of first-degree murder for the deaths of the mother, stepfather, and son of his estranged wife. McCoy pleaded not guilty, maintaining that he was out of state at the time of the murder. In 2010, his relationship with the court-appointed public defender broke down, and in March 2010 Larry English became McCoy’s defense attorney. English concluded that the evidence against McCoy was overwhelming and told McCoy that he would concede McCoy’s guilt in an effort to avoid the death penalty; McCoy adamantly opposed English’s strategy.  At trial, English nevertheless indicated repeatedly to the jury that McCoy had caused the victims’ deaths and pleaded for mercy.  McCoy protested unsuccessfully to the trial judge and was permitted to testify to his innocence, but was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that defense counsel had authority to concede guilt over McCoy’s objection as a strategy to avoid a death sentence. In light of a division of opinion among state courts of last resort on whether it is unconstitutional to allow defense counsel to concede guilt over the defendant’s intransigent and unambiguous objection, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.  

By a vote of 6-3, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the Louisiana Supreme Court and remanded the case for a new trial. In an opinion delivered by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to choose the fundamental objective of his defense and insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experience-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty. 

Justice Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, which was joined by the Chief Justice, and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch. 

To discuss the case, we have Jay Schweikert, Policy Analyst with the Cato Institute’s Project on Criminal Justice.