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Lawyer Can't Concede Guilt When Client Claims Innocence

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Lawyers have to listen to their clients, especially when it comes to pleading guilty.

That's basically what the U.S. Supreme Court said in State of Louisiana v. McCoy. In that triple-murder case, Robert McCoy told his lawyer he didn't do it.

His attorney chose a different strategy, however, and McCoy wound up on death row. Lucky for him though, with the recent Supreme Court decision in his favor, he gets a new trial, but that's only because he's still alive.

'Difficult Position'

With decided understatement, the Supreme Court said attorney Larry English was "placed in a difficult position."

"He had an unruly client and faced a strong government case," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote. "He reasonably thought the objective of his representation should be avoidance of the death penalty."

McCoy, of course, was in a more difficult situation. He was accused of killing his mother-in-law, stepfather and son.

"I did not murder my family," he testified at trial. In closing argument, however, his lawyer said McCoy was guilty of second-degree murder because of mental deficiencies.

'Concession of Guilt'

McCoy asked the trial judge for a new lawyer, but it was too late. Justice Ginsburg, joined by five of her colleagues, said the "concession of guilt should have been off the table" once McCoy communicated his objections to the court.

Justice Samuel Alito, Jr. joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, dissented. They said the majority missed the big picture.

"The Court ignores the question actually presented by the case before us and instead decides this case on the basis of a newly discovered constitutional right that is not implicated by what really occurred at petitioner's trial," Alito wrote.

In other words, McCoy was guilty.

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