U.S. justices sympathize with death row inmate's claim against lawyer

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday signaled sympathy toward a Louisiana death row inmate convicted of a 2008 triple murder who is seeking a new trial because his lawyer ignored his objections and told jurors the man had killed the victims.

Robert McCoy appears in a booking photo provided by the Bossier Sheriff's Office January 16, 2018. Bossier Sheriff's Office/Handout via REUTERS

Based on questions posed by liberal and conservative justices during the one-hour argument, it appears likely the court will decide that Robert McCoy, 44, should receive a new trial. The ruling could be a narrow one, with justices concerned about a broad decision that would limit the ability of lawyers to make strategic decisions during trials.

McCoy was convicted of killing the mother, stepfather and son of his estranged wife Yolanda McCoy in Bossier City, Louisiana. All were shot in the head at close range.

Lawyer Larry English, hired by the defendant’s parents, believed the evidence against his client was overwhelming and sought to negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors that would result in a life sentence. McCoy rejected that plan.

The legal question is whether McCoy’s right to legal representation at trial under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment was violated. The Supreme Court’s ruling, due by the end of June, will set a new precedent on whether a lawyer can concede a defendant’s guilt over the client’s stated objections.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that lawyers must allow clients to have a say even if it does not help their case.

“People can walk themselves into jail. They can walk themselves, regrettably, into the gas chamber. But they have a right to tell their story,” Sotomayor said.


Liberal Justice Elena Kagan said the case showed a conflict between the lawyer’s objective of wanting to avoid the death penalty for the defendant and the client’s objective of not wanting to admit he killed his wife’s family members.

“The question is when that happens, does the lawyer have to step back?” Kagan asked.

Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch questioned whether a lawyer substituting his own goal for a client’s could even be viewed as “assistance of counsel” under the Sixth Amendment.

“Can we even call it assistance of counsel? Is that what it is when a lawyer overrides that person’s wishes?” Gorsuch said.

Although some justices appeared concerned about protecting a lawyer’s right to make strategic decisions, liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg indicated it would not be a hindrance to deciding the case because McCoy’s objection was more profound.

“He wasn’t talking about strategy at that time. He just said, ‘I do not want to concede that I killed these people,’” Ginsburg said.

After McCoy was convicted of killing his estranged wife’s mother Christine Young, stepfather Willie Young and son Gregory Colston, he obtained new lawyers and said he had been deprived of effective assistance of counsel at trial. This claim was rejected by the trial court and the Louisiana Supreme Court.

McCoy, arrested in Idaho days after the murders, has maintained his innocence, saying he was out of state at the time. When he was arrested, a gun tied to the murders was found in the 18-wheeler truck in which he was traveling.

By the time of the 2011 trial, the relationship between client and lawyer had broken down. English told the jury during his opening statement that his client had killed the three victims. He sought to argue that McCoy should be found guilty of second-degree murder instead of the more serious first-degree murder on the grounds that his client did not have the intent to commit the crimes. In doing so, he hoped McCoy would avoid the death penalty.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham