McCoy v. Louisiana,
584 U.S. ___ (2018)

Annotate this Case
Justia Opinion Summary

McCoy, charged with murdering his estranged wife’s family, pleaded not guilty, insisting that he was out of state at the time of the killings and that corrupt police killed the victims. Although he adamantly objected to any admission of guilt, the court permitted his counsel, English, to tell the jury that McCoy “committed [the] three murders” and to argue that McCoy’s mental state prevented him from forming the specific intent necessary for first-degree murder. McCoy testified in his own defense, maintaining his innocence and pressing an alibi. At the penalty phase, English again conceded McCoy’s guilt, urging mercy because of McCoy’s mental issues. The jury returned three death verdicts. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed. The Supreme Court reversed. The Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to choose the objective of his defense and to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing offers the best chance to avoid the death penalty. Some decisions are reserved for the client—including whether to plead guilty, waive a jury trial, testify in one’s own behalf, and forgo an appeal. Rejecting the Louisiana Supreme Court’s conclusion that English’s refusal to maintain McCoy’s innocence was necessitated by a Rule of Professional Conduct that prohibits counsel from suborning perjury, the Court noted that there was no avowed perjury. English harbored no doubt that McCoy believed what he was saying. Ineffective-assistance-of-counsel jurisprudence does not apply where the client’s autonomy, not counsel’s competence, is at issue. The violation of McCoy’s protected autonomy right was structural in kind. McCoy must be accorded a new trial without any need to show prejudice.

  • Syllabus  | 
  • Opinion (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)  | 
  • Dissent (Samuel A. Alito, Jr.)

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

McCoy v. Louisiana

certiorari to the supreme court of louisiana

No. 16–8255. Argued January 17, 2018—Decided May 14, 2018

Petitioner Robert McCoy was charged with murdering his estranged wife’s mother, stepfather, and son. McCoy pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, insisting that he was out of State at the time of the killings and that corrupt police killed the victims when a drug deal went wrong. Although he vociferously insisted on his innocence and adamantly objected to any admission of guilt, the trial court permitted his counsel, Larry English, to tell the jury, during the trial’s guilt phase, McCoy “committed [the] three murders.” English’s strategy was to concede that McCoy committed the murders, but argue that McCoy’s mental state prevented him from forming the specific intent necessary for a first-degree murder conviction. Over McCoy’s repeated objection, English told the jury McCoy was the killer and that English “took [the] burden off of [the prosecutor]” on that issue. McCoy testified in his own defense, maintaining his innocence and pressing an alibi difficult to fathom. The jury found him guilty of all three first-degree murder counts. At the penalty phase, English again conceded McCoy’s guilt, but urged mercy in view of McCoy’s mental and emotional issues. The jury returned three death verdicts. Represented by new counsel, McCoy unsuccessfully sought a new trial. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling that English had authority to concede guilt, despite McCoy’s opposition.

Held: The Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to choose the objective of his defense and to insist that his counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty. Pp. 5–13.

(a) The Sixth Amendment guarantees to each criminal defendant “the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.” The defendant does not surrender control entirely to counsel, for the Sixth Amendment, in “grant[ing] to the accused personally the right to make his defense,” “speaks of the ‘assistance’ of counsel, and an assistant, however expert, is still an assistant.” Faretta v. California, 422 U. S. 806, 819–820. The lawyer’s province is trial management, but some decisions are reserved for the client—including whether to plead guilty, waive the right to a jury trial, testify in one’s own behalf, and forgo an appeal. Autonomy to decide that the objective of the defense is to assert innocence belongs in this reserved-for-the-client category. Refusing to plead guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence against her, rejecting the assistance of counsel, and insisting on maintaining her innocence at the guilt phase of a capital trial are not strategic choices; they are decisions about what the defendant’s objectives in fact are. See Weaver v. Massachusetts, 582 U. S. ___, ___. Counsel may reasonably assess a concession of guilt as best suited to avoiding the death penalty, as English did here. But the client may not share that objective. He may wish to avoid, above all else, the opprobrium attending admission that he killed family members, or he may hold life in prison not worth living and prefer to risk death for any hope, however small, of exoneration. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 21–22. Thus, when a client makes it plain that the objective of “his defence” is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts and pursue an acquittal, his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt. Pp. 5–8.

(b) Florida v. Nixon, 543 U. S. 175, is not to the contrary. Nixon’s attorney did not negate Nixon’s autonomy by overriding Nixon’s desired defense objective, for Nixon “was generally unresponsive” during discussions of trial strategy and “never verbally approved or protested” counsel’s proposed approach. Id., at 181. He complained about counsel’s admission of his guilt only after trial. Id., at 185. McCoy, in contrast, opposed English’s assertion of his guilt at every opportunity, before and during trial, both in conference with his lawyer and in open court. Citing Nix v. Whiteside, 475 U. S. 157, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded that English’s refusal to maintain McCoy’s innocence was necessitated by a Louisiana Rule of Professional Conduct that prohibits counsel from suborning perjury. But in Nix, the defendant told his lawyer that he intended to commit perjury. Here, there was no avowed perjury. English harbored no doubt that McCoy believed what he was saying; English simply disbelieved that account in view of the prosecution’s evidence. Louisiana’s ethical rules might have stopped English from presenting McCoy’s alibi evidence if English knew perjury was involved, but Louisiana has identified no ethical rule requiring English to admit McCoy’s guilt over McCoy’s objection. Pp. 8–11.

(c) The Court’s ineffective-assistance-of-counsel jurisprudence, see Strickland v. Washington, 466 U. S. 668, does not apply here, where the client’s autonomy, not counsel’s competence, is in issue. To gain redress for attorney error, a defendant ordinarily must show prejudice. See id., at 692. But here, the violation of McCoy’s protected autonomy right was complete when the court allowed counsel to usurp control of an issue within McCoy’s sole prerogative. Violation of a defendant’s Sixth Amendment-secured autonomy has been ranked “structural” error; when present, such an error is not subject to harmless-error review. See, e.g., McKaskle v. Wiggins, 465 U. S. 168, 177, n. 8; United States v. Gonzalez-Lopez, 548 U. S. 140; Waller v. Georgia, 467 U. S. 39. An error is structural if it is not designed to protect defendants from erroneous conviction, but instead protects some other interest, such as “the fundamental legal principle that a defendant must be allowed to make his own choices about the proper way to protect his own liberty.” Weaver, 582 U. S., at __ (citing Faretta, 422 U. S., at 834). Counsel’s admission of a client’s guilt over the client’s express objection is error structural in kind, for it blocks the defendant’s right to make a fundamental choice about his own defense. See Weaver, 582 U. S., at ___. McCoy must therefore be accorded a new trial without any need first to show prejudice. Pp. 11–12.

2014–1449 (La. 10/19/16), 218 So. 3d 535, reversed and remanded.

Ginsburg, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Alito, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Thomas and Gorsuch, JJ., joined.

Primary Holding

The Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to choose the objective of his defense and to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing offers the best chance to avoid the death penalty.

Disclaimer: Justia Annotations is a forum for attorneys to summarize, comment on, and analyze case law published on our site. Justia makes no guarantees or warranties that the annotations are accurate or reflect the current state of law, and no annotation is intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice. Contacting Justia or any attorney through this site, via web form, email, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship.

Disclaimer: Official Supreme Court case law is only found in the print version of the United States Reports. Justia case law is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect current legal developments, verdicts or settlements. We make no warranties or guarantees about the accuracy, completeness, or adequacy of the information contained on this site or information linked to from this site. Please check official sources.