Justices lean toward inmate in legal dispute
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court appeared to be in broad agreement Wednesday that a lawyer for a criminal defendant cannot override his client’s wish and concede his guilt at trial, even if the lawyer’s aim is to avoid a death sentence.
“People can walk themselves into jail. They can walk themselves, regrettably, into the gas chamber. But they have a right to tell their story,” said Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the high court member with the most experience as a trial lawyer and trial judge.
Sotomayor seemed to reflect a consensus view of the justices in the case of Louisiana death row inmate Robert McCoy. He repeatedly objected to his lawyer’s decision to acknowledge that McCoy killed the son, mother and step-father of his estranged wife in 2008.
Larry English, McCoy’s trial lawyer, has said the evidence against McCoy was overwhelming and that the only way to keep McCoy off death row was to beg for mercy. In the end, the strategy failed and a jury sentenced McCoy to death. If he wins at the Supreme Court, he could get a new trial.
The high court is weighing 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.
The court has previously held that the defendant typically is in charge, but that he cedes some control to his lawyer.
Seth Waxman, McCoy’s Supreme Court lawyer, said the decision to admit guilt rests with the defendant.
“If the defendant says I did not do X, I did not kill my parents, my family members, defense counsel may not affirmatively tell the jury that he did and ask that he be required to spend the rest of his life in prison,” Waxman said.