McCoy v. Louisiana, 584 U.S. ___, 138 S. Ct. 1500 (May. 14, 2018)

Under the Sixth Amendment, a defendant has the right to insist that defense 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. The defendant was charged with three counts of first-degree murder in this capital case. Throughout the proceedings, the defendant insistently maintained 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. The defendant’s lawyer concluded that the evidence against the defendant was overwhelming and that absent a concession at the guilt stage that the defendant was the killer, a death sentence would be impossible to avoid at the penalty phase. The defendant was furious when told about this strategy. The defendant told counsel not to make the concession, pressuring counsel to pursue acquittal. However, at the beginning of opening statements in the guilt phase, defense counsel told the jury there was “no way reasonably possible” that they could hear the prosecution’s evidence and reach “any other conclusion” than that the defendant was the cause of the victims’ death. Although the defendant protested in a hearing outside of the presence of the jury the trial court allowed defense counsel to continue with his strategy. Defense counsel then told the jury that the evidence was “unambiguous” that “my client committed three murders.” The defendant testified in his own defense, maintaining his innocence and pressing an alibi defense. In his closing argument, defense counsel reiterated that the defendant was the killer. The defendant was found guilty of all counts. At the penalty phase, defense counsel again conceded that the defendant committed the crimes but urged mercy. The jury returned three death verdicts.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari in light 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. The Court held that the Sixth Amendment was violated. It stated: “When a client expressly asserts that the objective of 'his defence' is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts, his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt.” The Court distinguished Florida v. Nixon, 543 U. S. 175 (2004), in which it had 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. In that case, defense counsel had several times explained to the defendant a proposed guilt phase concession strategy, but the defendant was unresponsive. The Nixon Court held that when counsel confers with the defendant and the defendant remains silent, neither approving nor protesting counsel’s proposed concession strategy, no blanket rule demands the defendant’s explicit consent to implementation of that strategy. The Court distinguished Nixon on grounds that there the defendant never asserted his defense objective. Here however the defendant opposed counsel’s assertion of guilt at every opportunity, before and during trial and in conferences with his lawyer and in open court. The Court clarified: “If a client declines to participate in his defense, then an attorney may permissibly guide the defense pursuant to the strategy she believes to be in the defendant’s best interest. Presented with express statements of the client’s will to maintain innocence, however, counsel may not steer the ship the other way.” It held: “counsel may not admit her client’s guilt of a charged crime over the client’s intransigent objection to that admission.” The Court went on to hold that this type of claim required no showing of prejudice. Rather, the issue was one of structural error. Thus, the defendant must be afforded a new trial without any need to first show prejudice.