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My client’s choice, not mine

April 15, 2018

By any measure, Attorney Larry English was in a bind. He was defending Robert McCoy, who was on trial for a triple murder in Louisiana. The State had made it clear that it was seeking the death penalty. In English’s judgment, the evidence against McCoy was overwhelming. McCoy, however, insisted that he was in Texas at the time of the murders, and that the killings had been orchestrated by local police involved in a drug ring.

English first encouraged McCoy to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence; as McCoy’s trial approached, English told McCoy that he planned to tell the jury that McCoy had committed all three murders, in the hope that doing so would convince the jury to sentence McCoy to life in prison, rather than death. McCoy was furious, but English went ahead with his plan, telling the jury that McCoy was “crazy” and “lives in a fantasy world.”

The strategy backfired. McCoy was convicted of all three murders and was sentenced to death.

Yesterday, on a 6-3 vote, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed his conviction. While (rightfully) recognizing that attorneys control strategy and tactics at trial, the Court nevertheless reiterated that there are certain decisions that can only be made by the client. One of those decisions is whether to plead guilty or to proceed to trial. By conceding guilt over his client’s explicit direction, the Court ruled, English violated McCoy’s constitutional right to profess innocence.

The Court’s three most conservative justices — Alito, Thomas and Gorsuch — dissented.

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