Courthouse Steps Decision: McCoy v. Louisiana

Criminal Law & Procedure Practice Group Teleforum

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Robert McCoy was charged with the murder of three of his family members in Bossier City, Louisiana. The state brought capital charges against him, but McCoy maintained his innocence – claiming he was not even in the state at the time of the murders – and demanded a jury trial. But in light of the evidence against him, McCoy’s lawyer thought the best trial strategy would be to admit guilt to the jury and hope for leniency in sentencing. McCoy adamantly opposed this plan, but his lawyer pursued it anyway and told the jury that McCoy was guilty. The jury returned three murder convictions and sentenced McCoy to death.

The Supreme Court has just issued a decision holding, 6-3, that it was unconstitutional for McCoy’s lawyer to admit guilt to the jury over McCoy’s express objection. The Court noted that whether to admit guilt is not a strategic question about how to achieve a client’s objectives, but a fundamental question about what a client’s objectives actually are. Therefore, the Sixth Amendment guarantees that the defendant, not his lawyer, has the final say on this question, and that McCoy must receive a new trial in which his attorney will defend his professed innocence and put the state to its burden of proof.