Justices lean toward death row inmate in dispute with lawyer

In this Oct. 10, 2017 photo, the Supreme Court in Washington is seen at sunset. The Supreme Court seems ready to say 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. The court on Wednesday dived into the case of Louisiana death row inmate Robert McCoy. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON — 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.

Justice Neil Gorsuch described English's concession as a grave error requiring a new trial. "A total denial of assistance of counsel, absence of an assistance of counsel," Gorsuch said.

Defending the Louisiana Supreme Court decision that rejected McCoy's claims, Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill urged the justices to decide that there are some death penalty cases where a lawyer can override his client's wishes "when the strategy that the client wants counsel to pursue is a futile charade."

McCoy's case is one such example, Murrill said. Court records point to considerable evidence against McCoy, including a gun found in the vehicle in which he was riding at the time of his arrest in Idaho that was linked to cartridge casings found at the scene of the killings in Louisiana.

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. He tried to recruit witnesses he said would vouch for him, including then-Sen. David Vitter. Vitter said he did not know McCoy.

The trial court found McCoy was competent to stand trial, but Justice Samuel Alito wondered whether that decision was correct. "If somebody like McCoy really sincerely believes that he did not commit these physical acts, but it was all done as part of an elaborate conspiracy, is he capable of assisting in his own defense?" Alito asked.

English, the trial lawyer, argued consistently that McCoy was in a fragile emotional state and that he lacked the intent to kill that is necessary for a jury to impose the death penalty.

English's view of McCoy's chances led him to concede in his opening argument that McCoy "committed these crimes."

Justice Elena Kagan said she understood English's dilemma, but questioned whether a lawyer had any choice when a client says his "paramount goal is to insist until my last breath that I didn't kill my family members."

A decision in McCoy v. Louisiana, 16-8255, is expected by late June.

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