Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer raised concerns Wednesday that defendants in criminal cases will “walk right into jail” if the high court decides a defense attorney cannot admit his client is guilty over the objections of the client if the lawyer is trying to avoid the death penalty.
Breyer, who has frequently questioned the death penalty, expressed those worries during oral arguments Wednesday in the case McCoy v. Louisiana, which raised the question of whether such an admission is a violation of the Sixth Amendment.
During the first 30 minutes of oral arguments, the justices questioned whether a ruling in favor of McCoy could hamper a defense lawyer’s ability to make tactical decisions for their clients.
But during the latter half of arguments, the justices addressed the impact the case could have on a defendant’s ability to express wishes about his or her future, should a ruling allow defense attorneys to act contrary to their clients' wishes.
Justice Elena Kagan said the courts have given lawyers “lots of leeway,” with the idea they “know better than clients.” But she stressed the case Wednesday involved a client expressing his objection and questioned that, per the state of Louisiana’s argument, a lawyer can effectively say that objection doesn’t matter.
Kagan noted that defense attorney Larry English, who was hired by the family of defendant Robert McCoy, wanted for his client to not be sentenced to death, while McCoy had the goal of not admitting he killed his estranged wife's three family members.
English, she said, substituted his goal for McCoy’s.
Similar to Kagan's questioning, Justice Neil Gorsuch asked whether the substitution could qualify as "assistance of counsel" under the Sixth Amendment.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said the takeaway from Louisiana was that if a defendant wanted to plead not guilty, the defense counsel could, to the contrary, plead guilty.
McCoy v. Louisiana dates to Robert McCoy’s arrest in 2008 after three of his estranged wife's family members — her mother, stepfather, and son — were shot and killed in Bossier City, La.
McCoy was appointed a public defender, but his family hired another lawyer, English, in March 2010 after McCoy’s relationship with his public defender became strained.
After a hearing more than a year after English was hired, he notified McCoy he intended to tell the jury he was guilty, which McCoy objected to.
McCoy and his family tried to fire English after he expressed his intention to admit to the jury McCoy’s guilt, despite his client's objections, and they asked the court to remove English from the case.
The court denied the request.
Over his client’s objections, English told the jury McCoy was guilty, saying he “ made a determination ... that the evidence in this case is ... overwhelming against Mr. McCoy.”
The jury found McCoy guilty of three counts of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to death.
If McCoy wins in the Supreme Court, he could receive a new trial.
During the first 30 minutes of arguments from lawyer Seth Waxman, who argued the case on behalf of McCoy, the justices seemed to worry that a ruling in favor of McCoy— that a defense counsel cannot admit guilt, even if it’s to avoid the death penalty — may be a slippery slope.
Chief Justice John Roberts raised the question of what would occur if a defense lawyer wanted to claim his client acted in self-defense but the defendant disagreed in saying he didn’t shoot first.
Breyer also noted that 200,000 criminal cases are being heard in lower courts, and said he worried there would be a “kind of chaos” if the high court ruled in favor of McCoy.
Gorsuch also raised two questions: the first being “where do we stop” with concessions — for example, if a client tells his defense counsel not to admit a piece of evidence; and the second being what if a lawyer casts doubt on the client’s innocence, without explicitly saying, "I admit?”
Sometimes, Gorsuch said, a piece of evidence can be more important than an admission of guilt.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor likened the debate to her “ethics class in law school.”
“They can walk themselves into jail,” she said. “They can walk themselves, regrettably, into the gas chamber. But they have a right to tell their story.”
Echoing Breyer’s concerns, Justice Samuel Alito also questioned where the line is in the case, regarding whether differing scenarios involving a defense lawyer’s tactical decisions would violate the Sixth Amendment if it's against the client's objections.
But during the second half of oral arguments, when Solicitor General of Louisiana Liz Murrill argued on behalf of the state, the justices also appeared skeptical as to what a ruling in favor of the state would mean for defendants.