Court to rule when lawyer says 'guilty,' but client objects

By Mark Sherman
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The lawyer for a Louisiana man facing murder charges decided to concede the man’s guilt in the hope of sparing him the death penalty.

The client, lawyer Larry English told jurors in his opening argument, “committed these crimes.”

But there was a problem: Defendant Robert McCoy repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and objected to the lawyer’s approach.

Now the Supreme Court will consider whether it violates the Constitution when a lawyer ignores his client’s instructions and concedes his guilt.

Among the issues for the court are who is ultimately in charge of the case, the lawyer or his client, and whether the right to a lawyer that's guaranteed by the Constitution is meaningful if, even with the best intentions, he can ignore his client's wishes.

In McCoy’s case, the legal strategy failed. A jury sentenced McCoy to death for killing the son, mother and step-father of his estranged wife in 2008.

McCoy’s parents had hired English to represent their son. English failed to persuade McCoy that the evidence against him was so strong that he should accept a plea deal.

With McCoy insisting on a trial, English settled on a defense that he told the trial judge was intended to “save his life, regardless of what he wanted to do.”

During the trial, McCoy testified in his own defense, saying he was innocent and suggesting that a drug trafficking ring led by law enforcement officers had framed him for the killings.

In his closing argument, English again said McCoy killed the three victims.

The Louisiana Supreme Court said English pursued a “reasonable trial strategy” in light of the evidence against McCoy and upheld the convictions.

McCoy’s Supreme Court lawyers say that the top courts in other states have ruled that lawyers can’t override their clients' objection and concede guilt.

The case will be argued in the winter.