When a defendant is faced with criminal charges and he’s battling the judge, the District Attorney, and what feels like the entire criminal justice system. The one person he should expect to be on his side, is his attorney. Unfortunately for Robert McCoy, he not only failed to convince a jury of his innocence at trial, he wasn’t able to convince his own attorney.
Mr. McCoy pleaded not guilty to three counts of first-degree murder and maintained his innocence, even after the jury found him guilty of all counts. Despite Mr. McCoy’s plea of innocence and testimony at trial denying any criminal activity, his own attorney conceded to the jury that it was his client, Robert McCoy, who committed the murders. Fortunately for Mr. McCoy, the United States Supreme Court held on May 14, 2018, that Mr. McCoy was denied the fundamental right to protect his own liberty.
The Sixth Amendment gu arantees to each criminal defendant “the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” Many attorney-client relationships struggle due to tensions caused by the lines drawn and the division of powers created by the Sixth Amendment. While the attorney is a legal expert needed to navigate litigation, the attorney truly serves as an assistant for the accused. Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 819-820.
Division of Labor
The division of duties in defending a case can be broken down into a “reserved-for-counsel” category and a “reserved-for-the-client” category. All attorneys know (or should know) that trial management decisions are reserved for counsel. Because trial management is an umbrella term for many aspects of litigation that can vary from which witness to call to what evidence to publish to a jury, its easy for even a skilled litigator to encroach on the rights reserved for the client.
In Florida v. Nixon, Nixon’s attorney didn’t go so far as to ignore the objections of his client like McCoy’s attorney seemingly did. Nixon was generally unresponsive when discussing trial strategy and defense objectives, but it wasn’t until after trial that Nixon verbally objected to his attorney’s admission of Nixon’s guilt. Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175 (2004). In Nixon, the Court refused to find error in the attorney’s concession of his client’s guilt because, although Nixon did not explicitly consent to the concession, there isn’t a “blanket rule” requiring that consent.
Robert McCoy was explicit. At every step of the way, McCoy made sure that his attorney new his theory of innocence. It wasn't until two week prior to trial that McCoy’s attorney informed him that he intended to reveal McCoy as the killer to the jury. Two days prior to trial, McCoy attempted to fire his attorney at a pre-trial hearing; however, the trial judge denied this request. McCoy had previously been represented by a Public Defender, who he also fired and replaced with private counsel, and at this stage of case, the judge was not willing to entertain a second change in counsel. Mr. McCoy’s attorney also requested that the court relieve him of his duties as counsel to which the court replied, “You are the attorney. You have to make the trial decision of what you’re going to proceed with.”
The Right to Maintain Your Innocence
But as Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, stated in the Supreme Court opinion, it was the attorney's decision to decide how to proceed at trial, but it was not his decision to take away his client's right to maintain his innocence. It should not be overlooked that McCoy’s attorney was placed in a difficult position. A position where the government had an insurmountable amount of evidence against his client that all led to the three tragic murders of McCoy’s ex-wife who he had reportedly abused in the past, her child, and his ex-wife’s new lover. McCoy was facing the death penalty on all three counts. To avoid the death penalty at the sentencing phase, in an attempt to save his clients life, McCoy’s attorney’s strategy was to admit guilt and show how mentally ill McCoy was at trial – so ill that he was willing to testify to a bizarre and unfathomable alibi in the face of clear cut evidence. McCoy’s attorney sought to seek sympathy from the jury to avoid the death penalty, but even with what could have been a strategic trial ploy, the jury returned a verdict of death on all three counts. Luckily for Mr. McCoy, the Supreme Court found that his right to stand up for his own liberty and be the master of his own defense outweighed one attorney’s disbelief.
Cases like Nixon and McCoy have further defined the attorney-client relationship and help clients and their counsel navigate what can often be a contentious relationship. That tension stems from the pressure that is placed on the accused and defense attorneys by a criminal justice system that makes innocent until proven guilty seem like a fallacy where the latter almost always comes to fruition.
If the attorney-client relationship is done correctly, counsel should only ever add ease to a rigid process. If you are feeling the pressure of the criminal justice system and need assistance with pending criminal charges, contact our Denver office for a consultation with one of our attorneys at (303) 534-1958. To read the full opinion and dissent of McCoy v. Louisiana, follow the link below.