On May 14, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of McCoy v. Louisiana. They settled a question that I, frankly, thought had been settled long before this case.
Robert McCoy had been charged with three counts of murder, the prosecution was seeking the death penalty. The evidence pointing to McCoy’s guilt was immense, but McCoy insisted at every step of the proceedings that he was innocent and not even in the state when the killing occurred, urging instead that corrupt police officers had committed the murders.
McCoy’s lawyer, faced with what he believed to be an unwinnable trial at the guilt phase, decided that the best strategy to save his client’s life was to concede McCoy’s guilt in the murders and argue for either a second degree murder or leniency in the penalty phase of the trial. The problem was, McCoy was adamantly opposed to this strategy and insisted that his lawyer press his innocence, defend the charges, and seek an acquittal. His lawyer declined to do so. Instead, he sought and was granted permission from the trial court to tell the jury that his client was guilty and had committed the murders.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled that this was wrong and held that a client does not have to choose between the autonomy to decide how to answer the charges against him are pled to and the right to an attorney guaranteed by the Constitution.
This answer seems obvious to me, the presumption of innocence and right to insist the government prove allegations against you beyond a reasonable doubt mean very little if your lawyer can simply override that decision unilaterally. Thinking about the case does, however, lead to a good refresher of what the roles of client and counsel are in a criminal prosecution.
Ultimately, for me, this decision fits right in with my philosophy. I am a counselor. I am there to offer my advice and expertise, but in the end I am there to try to help my client achieve her goals in the case. There will be lots of discussion about what those goals reasonably should be, but I often remind myself and my clients that I do not have to suffer any of the consequences of the prosecution. I do not have to do a single day of the sentence. As much as I care about my clients and the outcomes they receive in their cases, it is their skin in the game. So when the big picture goals of a case are being set, those goals should be set by my client after hearing my thoughts and suggestions. Even if I think I may know better, it is not ultimately up to me to make those big decisions.
There is a flipside to this coin as well. Some clients believe that a lawyer is little more than an employee who should do whatever they want in a case. This is also incorrect. As I stated, setting the broad goals within a case is within the client’s sole purview, but figuring out the details of how to get there is my job. That is why you hired me. So decisions about what witnesses to call, what arguments to make, what questions to ask, and what evidence to present are for the lawyer. As in decisions that belong to the client, these decisions are ideally made in consultation with the client after hearing the client’s thoughts and concerns, but they are in the end the lawyer’s decisions to make.
All of this leads to one very simple but important point. It is important when choosing a lawyer to choose someone who you trust. The most successful defenses are the result of the client and lawyer working as a team in pursuit of a common goal and if the team is not on the same page, it is a recipe for disaster. Mr. McCoy was given three death sentences by the jury to whom his lawyer conceded guilt.
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