McCoy v. Louisiana: Defense counsel cannot concede client's guilt against client's wishes
The ruling potentially limits other concessions defense attorneys can make without their clients' consent, as well.
Robert McCoy was charged with three murders. The State sought the death penalty.
Despite strong evidence of guilt, McCoy consistently maintained his innocence, said he had an alibi, and that corrupt police had killed the victims.
McCoy expressly told his trial attorney not to concede his guilt at trial.
But the attorney – believing that conceding guilt was the only way to avoid a death sentence – told the jury that the evidence was “unambiguous” that “my client committed three murders.”
The jury ultimately convicted McCoy and sentenced him to death.
The Louisiana courts ruled that defense counsel was allowed to concede guilt because counsel reasonably believed that was the only possible strategy to avoid a death sentence.
Concession of guilt is client's decision
The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 opinion, reversed.
“[A] defendant has the right to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel's experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty,” the Court held.
“[I]t is the defendant's prerogative, not counsel's, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State or prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”
The Sixth Amendment “speaks of the ‘assistance' of counsel, and an assistant, however, expert, is still an assistant,” the Court said.
Defense counsel is permitted to make decisions regarding “trial management,” such as what arguments to pursue, what evidentiary objections to make, and what agreements to make regarding admission of evidence, the Court said.
But other decisions – such as whether to plead guilty, waive the right to a jury, testify on one's own behalf, or forgo an appeal – are reserved for the client, the Court said.
Whether to concede guilt at trial falls into the category of decisions reserved for the client, the Court said.
“Just as a defendant may steadfastly refuse to plead guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence against her … so may she insist on maintaining her innocence at the guilt phase of a capital trial,” the Court said. “These are not strategic choices about how best to achieve a client's objectives; they are choices about what the client's objectives in fact are.”
The Court distinguished Florida v. Nixon (2004), where a defense counsel was permitted to concede guilt, on grounds that the defendant there remained silent as to whether he wanted counsel to concede guilt or not. McCoy, by contrast, was adamant he did not want to concede guilt.
Counsel's error here was structural, not subject to the prejudice analysis usually applied in ineffective assistance of counsel cases. This is because “a client's autonomy, not counsel's competence” was at issue.
“[T]he violation of McCoy's protected autonomy right was complete when the court allowed counsel to usurp control of an issue within McCoy's sole prerogative,” the Court said.
An error is structural if the right at issue is not designed to protect against erroneous conviction but to protect some other interest – here, a defendant's autonomy to make his own choices about the proper way to protect his liberty, the Court said.
The Court remanded for a new trial.
Dissenting opinion suggests other limitations on counsel's decisions
Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, dissented.
They said the majority had misstated the record and that McCoy's defense counsel did not, in fact, concede guilt because although counsel admitted that McCoy shot the victims, he also argued that McCoy lacked the mens rea for first–degree murder.
They chastised the majority for creating a new constitutional right for a defendant “to insist that his attorney contest his guilt with respect to all charged offenses.”
The majority's opinion raises unintended questions, they said. For example, can counsel unilaterally decide to concede some elements of an offense?
“Some criminal offenses contain elements that the prosecution can easily prove beyond any shadow of a doubt. A prior felony conviction is a good example,” they said. “If the defendant insists on contesting the convictions on frivolous grounds, must counsel go along?”
“What about conceding that defendant is guilty, not of the offense charged, but of a lesser included offense?”
“Where the evidence strongly supports conviction for first-degree murder, is it unconstitutional for defense counsel to make the decision to admit guilt of any lesser included form of homicide – even manslaughter? What about simple assault?”