Guilt Admission by Killer's Lawyer Contested at High Court

Guilt Admission by Killer's Lawyer Contested at High Court

I don't know where she is! "The detectives have her!" McCoy may not have been competent to stand trial, he observed, and the judge denied a request to allow English to withdraw from representing McCoy.

"Because of this delusion, Mr McCoy was incapable of rationally dealing with the evidence of his guilt", English added.

Kagan continued: "But the question is, when that happens, does the lawyer have to step back and say: You know what?"

The court was considering the actions of Larry English, at the time a lawyer in Louisiana.

English believed he would forfeit his credibility with the jury if he helped McCoy mount a defense, credibility he would desperately need at the sentencing phase if he were to convince jurors to spare McCoy's life.

McCoy, arrested in Idaho days after the murders, has maintained his innocence, saying he was out of state at the time.

Under American law, to decide whether someone should be sentenced to death, the jury considers both aggravating (factors that make the death penalty appropriate) and mitigating circumstances (factors that would make it not appropriate). He later told the jury that McCoy was "crazy" and had "snapped". And in his closing, he told the jurors that he had taken the burden of finding and proving guilt off of them and the prosecutor.

In the end, English's strategy didn't work.

So while the result of the case is likely to be a new trial for McCoy, the high court's nine lawyers clearly had doubts about a rule that would strip lawyers of their power to direct the defense.

Gorsuch questioned whether the lawyer's decision could be viewed as assistance of counsel under the Sixth Amendment. He said it is a "personal defense" and the decision on whether to admit or contest guilt is the heart of that personal defense.

"This sounds like my ethics class in law school", remarked Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

"People can walk themselves into jail. They can walk themselves, regrettably, into the gas chamber", Sotomayor said. Moreover, McCoy's brother and two longtime friends told police that he confessed his guilt to them.

Justice Stephen Breyer, however, anxious 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 Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill. Or, put another way, how should courts figure out what kinds of decisions and strategies are sufficiently important to warrant a new trial if a lawyer disregards his client's wishes?

What Louisiana's "narrow" rule says.

Defendants often make their lawyer's job hard. "And you're saying that the lawyer can say it doesn't matter that that's your overriding objective?" His ultimate objective was to save the client's life.

But that wasn't the client's objective, interjected Justice Kagan.

"Your position is not limited to where the lawyer admits a client's guilt, it goes beyond that?" "And he has a client who says: That's not my goal here".

But Chief Justice John Roberts was concerned about how far Waxman's argument might extend, wondering if it would give uninformed defendants too much ability to override the decisions of their advocates.

"Murrill replied, you're talking about a defendant who is" rational", and that's "not correct in this case".

But the harder questions were for Murrill.

Kagan said at one point during the argument: "I totally understand that this lawyer was in a bad position because this lawyer wants to defeat the death penalty". If someone like McCoy really believes that he is being prosecuted as part of an elaborate conspiracy, asked Alito, "is he capable of assisting in his own defense?"

McCoy's case is not rare, in this sense. If so, he asked, why wouldn't an inmate be entitled to a new trial if a defendant wanted to keep the evidence from being revealed to the jury but his lawyer didn't see a good reason to object to its admission?

Waxman tried to limit the potential reach of his rule, telling Roberts that a criminal defense lawyer "may not stand up and affirmatively vouch, admit that his client is guilty".

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