WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday threw out a Louisiana death row inmate’s conviction for a 2008 triple murder, finding that his lawyer violated the man’s constitutional rights by ignoring his objections and telling jurors the defendant killed the victims.
The court ruled 6-3 that Robert McCoy, 44, should receive a new trial. McCoy was convicted of killing the mother, stepfather and son of his estranged wife in Bossier City, Louisiana. All were shot in the head at close range.
The justices found that McCoy’s right to legal representation at trial under the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment was violated.
“The ruling restores in Louisiana the constitutional right of every individual to present their defense to a jury. While rare in the rest of the country, what happened to Mr. McCoy was a part of Louisiana’s broken criminal justice system that fails to respect individual human dignity,” said Richard Bourke, one of McCoy’s current lawyers.
McCoy’s previous lawyer Larry English told the jury during the 2011 trial that McCoy had killed the three victims. English’s aim was to convince jurors that McCoy should be found guilty of second-degree murder instead of the more serious first-degree murder in the hope that his client would avoid the death penalty.
“Larry English was placed in a difficult position; he had an unruly client and faced a strong government case. He reasonably thought the objective of his representation should be avoidance of the death penalty,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote on behalf of the court.
But, she added, because McCoy maintained his innocence, “a concession of guilt should have been off the table.”
While the Supreme Court has shown little inclination to overturn the legality of capital punishment, the justices regularly rule in favor of death row inmates who raise concerns about the circumstances of their convictions. On March 21, the court allowed a Texas death row inmate to try to secure public funds to press his claim that his trial lawyers made errors that could enable him to avoid execution.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on Monday set a new precedent on whether a lawyer can concede a defendant’s guilt over the client’s stated objections.
After McCoy was convicted of killing his estranged wife Yolanda McCoy’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 linked to the murders was found in the 18-wheeler truck in which he was traveling.
By the time of the trial, the relationship between client and lawyer had broken down. English, hired by the defendant’s parents, believed the evidence against McCoy was overwhelming and had sought to negotiate a plea deal with prosecutors that would result in a life sentence. McCoy rejected that plan.
Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham