In the summer of 2011, defendant Robert McCoy met with his lawyer Larry English to discuss how to plead in a capital case, The New York Times reported.
English told McCoy that he wanted him to concede to killing the mother, stepfather and brother-in-law of his estranged wife.
Others committed the crimes, McCoy told English, and he wanted to clear his name.
However, English said in a sworn statement that “Robert was furious, and it was a very intense meeting. He told me not to make that concession, but I told him that I was going to do so.
There was substantial evidence that he had done so, the Times reported
There was no ambiguity in McCoy’s position that he was innocent of the murders, according to English. But, his “belief in his innocence was both earnest and delusional,” according to the Times.
“I believed that this was the only way to save his life,” English said.
The dispute was settled in court.
“Admitting guilt in an attempt to avoid the imposition of the death penalty appears to constitute a reasonable trial strategy,” the trial court determined after finding that there was overwhelming evidence incriminating McCoy.
English believed McCoy’s credibility was at stake and “feared the jurors would not listen him to when he begged them to spare Mr. McCoy’s life in the second phase.”
According to a unanimous 2004 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in Florida v. Nixon, “Lawyers need not obtain the clients’ express consent before conceding guilt in a capital case.”
“Conceding guilt in a capital case is sometimes the right play,” according to the Times. In September, the Supreme Court agreed to decide whether it is permissible “even if the man whose life is at stake objects.”
However, the Nixon ruling did not address whether it was permissible for a lawyer to disregard a client’s explicit instruction to the contrary.
“Mr. English is simply selling me out. … This is unconstitutional for you to keep an attorney on my case when this attorney is completely selling me out,” McCoy told the trial judge, who denied his request to represent himself after he tried to fire English.
A Yale law school clinic accused English of not being an effective defense attorney.
In a legal brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of McCoy, the law school claimed that English did not go far enough to test the prosecution’s case, which backfired when McCoy was found guilty of capital murder.
The Sixth Amendment to the United States guarantees a right to the assistance of counsel. However, a capital defendant has no right to a lawyer who insists on his innocence, the Supreme Court ruled. The Supreme Court also ruled in 1975 in Faretta v. California that “the client is boss.”