DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK. Today the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a case that involves a pretty surprising plot twist. The lawyer for the defendant in a brutal triple-murder case told the jurors that the accused, his client, was guilty. The defense attorney said he did this in an effort to avoid the death penalty despite his client's insistence he was innocent. And the question before the justices today is whether that lawyer violated his client's constitutional right to counsel. Here's NPR's Nina Totenberg.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: In 2008, Robert McCoy's wife, Yolanda, took her infant daughter and fled Louisiana. She went into protective custody in Dallas after her husband held her at knifepoint and threatened to kill her. She left her son with her parents, so he could finish high school and graduate. A month later, McCoy was arrested and charged with killing his wife's parents and her son. A 911 tape recorded Yolanda's mother screaming, she ain't here, Robert. I don't know where she is. The detectives have her. A gunshot is heard and then the line goes dead. From that day to this, although the evidence against him was overwhelming, McCoy has proclaimed his innocence, alleging that the killings were the product of a drug deal gone bad and that police conspired to frame him because he supposedly revealed their involvement in drug trafficking.
Five months after McCoy's arrest, state psychiatric experts found him mentally competent to stand trial. But he was continually at odds with his public defenders, eventually firing them for refusing to file subpoenas he prepared for a dozen witnesses he said could support his alibi defense and other claims. He briefly acted as his own lawyer until his parents hired Larry English to defend him. And even then, the defendant continued to file motions in his own defense. Lawyer English repeatedly advised McCoy to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison or to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. But McCoy refused, insisting that he was innocent.
Finally, English embarked on a strategy of conceding his client's guilt in hopes of avoiding the death penalty. Directly contradicting his client's instructions, he suggested that McCoy suffered from diminished mental capacity and should, therefore, only be convicted of second degree murder. But as the prosecutor would soon explain to the jury, that defense was legally unavailable to McCoy because Louisiana only allows a diminished capacity argument if the defendant has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. It was one of many mistakes English appears to have made during the trial. Throughout, McCoy kept interrupting his lawyer's concessions of guilt, even trying to fire him. The jury ultimately sentenced McCoy to death. And the question today is whether he was denied his constitutional right to counsel.
On one side is McCoy's new lawyer who will tell the Supreme Court that when a criminal defendant refuses to plead guilty, the lawyer is not free to disregard that decision. On the other side, the state of Louisiana argues that when a lawyer and his client have irreconcilable differences, the client has a choice represent himself or cede the strategy for the trial to his lawyer. Because McCoy did not try to fire his lawyer until just days before the trial, the state contends he had to let the lawyer dictate legal strategy. Ten leading legal ethics experts have filed a brief in the case siding with McCoy. Lawrence Fox, a Yale Law School ethics lecturer, says these cases occur more often than you might expect, especially in capital cases where defendants are only rarely found incompetent to stand trial.
LAWRENCE FOX: This is a very difficult issue, obviously. Most of us would think that the lawyers should just do what's in the best interest of the client in the view of the lawyer.
TOTENBERG: But the Constitution and the legal profession have drawn the line differently, he says.
FOX: The client should get to decide because the client is the person who's going to suffer whatever the result is. And we can imagine many situations where a lawyer might be overbearing.
TOTENBERG: So overbearing that the lawyer's will can sometimes trump his client's ability to be master of his own fate. A decision in the case is expected by summer. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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