United States Supreme Court to Decide Whether Defense Attorney Can Concede Defendant’s Guilt Over Defendant’s Claim of Innocence

The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari in McCoy v. Louisiana to decide whether a criminal defense attorney is constitutionally permitted to concede his or her client’s guilt over the defendant’s objections to such concession.

In 2008, Robert Leroy McCoy was charged with first-degree murder and faced the death penalty for allegedly murdering his ex-wife’s son, mother, and stepfather. Prior to trial, McCoy maintained his innocence to his private defense attorney, Larry English. In addition, McCoy testified that the three murders, for which he alleged he was framed, were committed by police officers involved in a drug trafficking ring. Despite this, in an attempt to spare him the death penalty, English conceded McCoy’s guilt during trial over McCoy’s verbal in-court protest to the concession. English justified such a concession on his belief that the evidence was so overwhelmingly against his client, and that conceding guilt was “the only way to save his life.” McCoy was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.

The case was appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, where McCoy’s conviction was unanimously upheld. McCoy’s fourth of sixteen assignments of error alleged that his attorney’s concession of guilt violated the principle that the attorney-client relationship “is one of principal and agent wherein the lawyer’s authority derives from and is limited by the authority of the client” (see ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.2 for a codification of such principle). The court, citing extensively to supporting precedent, found no merit in McCoy’s assignment of error, stating that “conceding guilt, in the hope of saving a defendant’s life at the penalty phase, is a reasonable course of action in a case in which evidence of guilt is overwhelming . . . Louisiana courts have consistently upheld the defense strategy of acknowledging guilt, against a charge of ineffective assistance of counsel . . . .”

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in 2018.

Read McCoy’s petition for writ of certiorari here.

Read SCOTUSblog’s track of the docket here.

Read the Louisiana Supreme Court opinion here.

Read articles on the matter here and here.