Lawyer in Death Row Case Defies Own Client—and Loses

Now the Supreme Court will weigh in on the fairness of that
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 16, 2018 1:43 PM CST
Supreme Court to Hear Death Row Case With a Twist
Robert McCoy.   (Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in a death row case, but this one has an unusual element. The case involves Robert McCoy, who is currently on Louisiana's death row after being convicted of a triple homicide back in 2011. McCoy has always maintained his innocence, but his attorney, Robert English, defied McCoy's wishes during the trial and told the jury that McCoy was guilty—figuring it was the only hope of avoiding a death sentence, explains NBC News. The gambit didn't work, however. McCoy was convicted and sentenced to death, and now McCoy is arguing that his constitutional right to mount a defense was violated. More background and developments:

  • The crime: McCoy is accused of killing his estranged wife's teenage son, mother, and stepfather, while searching for his wife, and the Washington Post reports that prosecutors had compelling evidence. On a 911 call, McCoy's mother-in-law could be heard saying, "She ain’t here, Robert. I don’t know where she is," before a gunshot rings out and the call is disconnected. Witnesses saw McCoy's car leaving the area, and cops later found the phone his mother-in-law used to call 911 in the vehicle.

  • Crazy trial: McCoy insists that police framed him, but English tried to convince him that admitting guilt was the only way to stay alive. The attorney pressed ahead with the strategy over McCoy's objections, telling jurors in his opening arguments that McCoy was both "crazy" and guilty. McCoy spoke up. "Your Honor, this is unconstitutional for you to keep an attorney on my case when this attorney is completely selling me out," per the Advocate. The judge disagreed and allowed the trial to continue.
  • The big question: Did English have the right to overrule his client? A "friend of the court" brief filed by the libertarian Cato Institute on behalf of McCoy says no. The “right to maintain one’s own innocence is perhaps more fundamental to American justice than any of the other rights encompassed within a defendant’s autonomy," it states, per SCOTUSblog.
  • Counterpoint: The state of Louisiana says English was well within his rights, and the Louisiana Supreme Court has agreed. “Admitting guilt in an attempt to avoid the imposition of the death penalty appears to constitute reasonable trial strategy,” the court ruled. The justices cited a 2004 Supreme Court case that found an attorney doesn't need his client's tacit consent to admit guilt, though McCoy argues that his situation is different because he objected so strongly to the strategy.
  • No regrets: English, who is no longer a practicing attorney, tells the New York Times he has no regrets about his trial decision. “When you’re in a courtroom fighting for someone’s life, you bring every skill and trick of the trade to save that person’s life,” he says. “A death penalty case is not normal.” English was planning to attend Wednesday's arguments.
(Read more US Supreme Court stories.)

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