Where does a defense lawyer’s responsibility lie? Is it their duty to obey their client’s wishes, or are they obliged to act in whatever way they believe has the highest likelihood of a positive outcome for their client? What happens when these two objectives conflict with each other?
This is the issue currently being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Larry English was a life-long criminal defense attorney. In the final case of his career, he represented Robert McCoy, a Louisiana man who had been accused of murdering three people. Throughout the trial, McCoy maintained his innocence. But English grew concerned about the pending verdict.
The evidence was stacked against McCoy. After decades of practicing law in a criminal justice system which, according to English, was wrought with racism and classism, he felt his client was certainly headed for death row. English felt that his only hope of evading death-and securing him instead a lifetime prison sentence-was to plead guilty.
And that is what Mr. English did. He told the jury that Mr. McCoy was insane, and that he had committed the crimes in question. McCoy objected loudly in court, claiming his lawyer had sold him out and had ignored his right to due process.
To make matters worse, English’s controversial strategy failed. McCoy was not given a lighter sentence in exchange for his (representative) guilty plea. He is now facing execution.
The case has now made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which will consider whether it was unconstitutional for English to plead his client’s guilt without his client’s consent. It will also decide whether McCoy deserves a new trial.