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Defense Attorney And Client Disagree On Guilty Plea At Supreme Court

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

At the U.S. Supreme Court today, justices both liberal and conservative signaled they have a problem with a lawyer who disregards his client's explicit instructions and concedes the client's guilt to the jury. The defendant, Robert McCoy, is charged with killing three family members in a vain attempt to find his wife. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Despite overwhelming evidence against him, Robert McCoy steadfastly maintained his innocence and refused to plead guilty or even not guilty by reason of insanity.

His lawyer, however, told the jury that there is, quote, "no way reasonably possible that you can listen to the evidence and not conclude that he committed this crime. I'm taking that burden off of you and off the prosecutor." The lawyer was hoping the jury would not sentence McCoy to death if he could persuade them that only a crazy person would be claiming to be innocent with these facts.

The strategy didn't work. McCoy was convicted and sentenced to death. The state Supreme Court upheld the proceedings, and the infuriated client appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking for a new trial on grounds that his right to counsel had been violated. Experts say there are more cases like McCoy's than you might think largely because many defendants have serious mental illnesses but have been found mentally competent to stand trial.

On the steps of the Supreme Court today, Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill said that if defense lawyers cannot deal with that problem, they will have lost an important way to defend capital murder defendants.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELIZABETH MURRILL: I think at the end of the day, it's a bigger loss for defense counsel than it is for the state because you've made it easier for the state to convict.

TOTENBERG: Inside the courtroom, McCoy's new lawyer, Seth Waxman, told the justices the Sixth Amendment right to counsel belongs to the accused. He said the decision whether to admit or contest guilt is part of that personal right.

Justice Sotomayor - this sounds like my ethics class in law school. People can walk themselves into jail. They can walk themselves regrettably into the gas chamber, but they have a right to tell their story. But Justice Breyer worried about creating chaos in the lower courts with increasing numbers of defendants deciding to defend themselves without any skills or knowledge.

Next up to the lectern was Louisiana's Murrill. She urged the court to uphold the death penalty in this case and to create a narrow rule that would allow lawyers in death penalty cases to overrule their client's wishes if those wishes would be a, quote, "futile charade that would lead to the death penalty." Justice Kennedy, apparently incredulous - so the state of Louisiana says that if a defendant wants to plead not guilty, the defense attorney can plead him guilty to avoid the death penalty?

Justice Kagan - we've given lawyers a lot of leeway to make strategic trial decisions because lawyers often will know better how to pursue a set of objectives. But here we have a client saying, I have an overriding objective in this case, and that is not to admit that I've killed family members. And you're saying that the lawyer can say that doesn't matter.

Murrill said the lawyer here believed his client was delusional, and the lawyer's ultimate objective was to save the client's life. But that wasn't the client's objective, noted Justice Kagan. I understand the lawyer here was in a terrible position because he wants to defeat the death penalty, but his client says, that's not my goal.

Chief Justice Roberts - suppose he thinks life in prison is worse than the death penalty. Answer - you're talking about a defendant who is rational, and that's not the case here. If there's any question here, Murrill said, it should be whether the lawyer provided ineffective assistance to his client. Justice Kagan and later Justice Gorsuch replied that notion isn't a good fit in cases like this because there was nothing wrong with what the lawyer did if the goal was to avoid the death penalty. The problem was he was substituting his goal for his client's.

Justice Alito observed that this situation occurred because of a number of prior steps, starting with the trial court's decision that McCoy was mentally competent to stand trial. If someone like McCoy really believes that he's being prosecuted as part of an elaborate conspiracy, asked Alito, is he really capable of assisting in his own defense?

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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