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McCoy v. Louisiana

United States Supreme Court

May 14, 2018

584 U.S. ____ (2018)
v.
LOUISIANA ROBERT LEROY McCOY, PETITIONER

          Argued January 17, 2018

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF LOUISIANA No. 16-8255.

         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." Farettav. 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.

          OPINION

          GiNSBURG JUSTICE.

         In Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175 (2004), this Court considered whether the Constitution bars defense counsel from conceding a capital defendant's guilt at trial "when [the] defendant, informed by counsel, neither consents nor objects, " id., at 178. In that case, defense counsel had several times explained to the defendant a proposed guilt-phase concession strategy, but the defendant was unresponsive. Id., at 186. We held that when counsel confers with the defendant and the defendant remains silent, neither approving nor protesting counsel's proposed concession strategy, id., at 181, "[no] blanket rule demand[s] the defendant's explicit consent" to implementation of that strategy, id., at 192.

         In the case now before us, in contrast to Nixon, the defendant vociferously insisted that he did not engage in the charged acts and adamantly objected to any admission of guilt. App. 286-287, 505-506. Yet the trial court permitted counsel, at the guilt phase of a capital trial, to tell the jury the defendant "committed three murders. . . . [H]e's guilty." Id., at 509, 510. We hold that a defendant has the right to insist that 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. Guaranteeing a defendant the right "to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence, " the Sixth Amendment so demands. With individual liberty-and, in capital cases, life-at stake, it is the defendant's prerogative, not counsel's, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

         I

         On May 5, 2008, Christine and Willie Young and Gregory Colston were shot and killed in the Youngs' home in Bossier City, Louisiana. The three victims were the mother, stepfather, and son of Robert McCoy's estranged wife, Yolanda. Several days later, police arrested McCoy in Idaho. Extradited to Louisiana, McCoy was appointed counsel from the public defender's office. A Bossier Parish grand jury indicted McCoy on three counts of first-degree murder, and the prosecutor gave notice of intent to seek the death penalty. McCoy pleaded not guilty. Throughout the proceedings, he insistently maintained he was out of State at the time of the killings and that corrupt police killed the victims when a drug deal went wrong. App. 284-286. At defense counsel's request, a court-appointed sanity commission examined McCoy and found him competent to stand trial.

         In December 2009 and January 2010, McCoy told the court his relationship with assigned counsel had broken down irretrievably. He sought and gained leave to represent himself until his parents engaged new counsel for him. In March 2010, Larry English, engaged by McCoy's parents, enrolled as McCoy's counsel. English eventually concluded that the evidence against McCoy was over- whelming and that, absent a concession at the guilt stage that McCoy was the killer, a death sentence would be impossible to avoid at the penalty phase.[1] McCoy, English reported, was "furious" when told, two weeks before trial was scheduled to begin, that English would concede McCoy's commission of the triple murders. Id., at 286.[2]McCoy told English "not to make that concession, " and English knew of McCoy's "complet[e] opposition] to [English] telling the jury that [McCoy] was guilty of killing the three victims"; instead of any concession, McCoy pressed English to pursue acquittal. Id., at 286-287.

         At a July 26, 2011 hearing, McCoy sought to terminate English's representation, id., at 449, and English asked to be relieved if McCoy secured other counsel, id., at 458. With trial set to start two days later, the court refused to relieve English and directed that he remain as counsel of record. Id., at 461. "[Y]ou are the attorney, " the court told English when he expressed disagreement with McCoy's wish to put on a defense case, and "you have to make the trial decision of what you're going to proceed with." Id., at 469.

         At the beginning of his opening statement at the guilt phase of the trial, English told the jury there was "no way reasonably possible" that they could hear the prosecution's evidence and reach "any other conclusion than Robert McCoy was the cause of these individuals' death." Id., at 504. McCoy protested; out of earshot of the jury, McCoy told the court that English was "selling [him] out" by maintaining that McCoy "murdered [his] family." Id., at 505-506. The trial court reiterated that English was "representing" McCoy and told McCoy that the court would not permit "any other outbursts." Id., at 506. Continuing his opening statement, English told the jury the evidence is "unambiguous, " "my client committed three murders." Id., at 509. McCoy testified in his own defense, maintaining his innocence and pressing an alibi difficult to fathom. In his closing argument, English reiterated that McCoy was the killer. On that issue, English told the jury that he "took [the] burden off of [the prosecutor]." Id., at 647. The jury then returned a unanimous verdict of guilty of first-degree murder on all three counts. At the penalty phase, English again conceded "Robert McCoy committed these crimes, " id., at 751, but urged mercy in view of McCoy's "serious mental and emotional issues, " id., at 755. The jury returned three death verdicts.

         Represented by new counsel, McCoy unsuccessfully moved for a new trial, arguing that the trial court violated his constitutional rights by allowing English to concede McCoy "committed three murders, " id., at 509, over McCoy's objection. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's ruling that defense counsel had authority so to concede guilt, despite the defendant's opposition to any admission of guilt. See 2014-1449 (La. 10/19/16), 218 So.3d 535. The concession was permissible, the court concluded, because counsel reasonably believed that admitting guilt afforded McCoy the best chance to avoid a death sentence.

         We granted certiorari in view of a division of opinion among state courts of last resort on the question whether it is unconstitutional to allow defense counsel to concede guilt over the defendant's intransigent and unambiguous objection. 582 U.S.__(2017). Compare with the instant case, e.g., Cooke v. State, 977 A.2d 803, 842-846 (Del. 2009) (counsel's pursuit of a "guilty but mentally ill" verdict over defendant's "vociferous and repeated protestations" of innocence violated defendant's "constitutional right to make the fundamental decisions regarding his case"); State v. Carter, 270 Kan. 426, 440, 14 P.3d 1138, 1148 (2000) (counsel's admission of client's involvement in murder when client adamantly maintained his innocence contravened Sixth Amendment right to counsel and due process right to a fair trial).

         II

         A

         The Sixth Amendment guarantees to each criminal defendant "the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." At common law, self-representation was the norm. See Fa-retta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 823 (1975) (citing 1 F. Pollock & F. Maitland, The History of English Law 211 (2d ed. 1909)). As the laws of England and the American Colonies developed, providing for a right to counsel in criminal cases, self-representation remained common and the right to proceed without counsel was recognized. Faretta, 422 U.S., at 824-828. Even now, when most defendants choose to be represented by counsel, see, e.g., Goldschmidt & Stemen, Patterns and Trends in Federal Pro Se Defense, 1996-2011: An Exploratory Study, 8 Fed. Cts. L. Rev. 81, 91 (2015) (0.2% of federal felony defendants proceeded pro se), an accused may insist upon representing herself-however counterproductive that course may be, see Faretta, 422 U.S., at 834. As this Court explained, "[t]he right to defend is personal, " and a defendant's choice in exercising that right "must be honored out of 'that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law.'" Ibid, (quoting Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 337, 350-351 (1970) (Brennan, J., concurring)); see McKaskle v. Wiggins, 465 U.S. 168, 176-177 (1984) ("The right to appear pro se exists to affirm the dignity and autonomy of the accused.").

         The choice is not all or nothing: To gain assistance, a defendant need not surrender control entirely to counsel. For the Sixth Amendment, in "granting] 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, 422 U.S., at 819-820; see Gannett Co. v. DePasquale, 443 U.S. 368, 382, n. 10 (1979) (the Sixth Amendment "contemplat[es] a norm in which the accused, and not a lawyer, is master of his own defense"). Trial management is the lawyer's province: Counsel provides his or her assistance by making decisions such as "what arguments to pursue, what evidentiary objections to raise, and what agreements to conclude regarding the admission of evidence." Gonzalez v. United States, 553 U.S. 242, 248 (2008) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Some decisions, however, are reserved for the client-notably, whether to plead guilty, waive the right to a jury trial, testify in one's own behalf, and forgo an appeal. See Jones v. Barnes, 463 U.S. 745, 751 (1983).

         Autonomy to decide that the objective of the defense is to assert innocence belongs in this latter category. Just as a defendant may steadfastly refuse to plead guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence against her, or reject the assistance of legal counsel despite the defendant's own inexperience and lack of professional qualifications, so may she insist on maintaining her innocence at the guilt phase of a capital trial. These are not strategic choices about how best to achieve a client's objectives; they are choices about what the client's objectives in fact are. See Weaver v. Massachusetts, 582 U.S.__, __(2017) (slip op., at 6) (2017) (self-representation will often increase the likelihood of an unfavorable outcome but "is based on the fundamental legal principle that a defendant must be allowed to make his own choices about the proper way to protect his own liberty"); Martinez v. Court of Appeal of Cal., Fourth Appellate Dist., 528 ...


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