Victory for Defendant Autonomy and the Criminal Jury Trial in McCoy v. Louisiana

Robert McCoy was charged with the murder of three of his family members in Bossier City, Louisiana. The state brought capital charges against him, but McCoy maintained his innocence—claiming he was not even in the state at the time of the murders—and demanded a jury trial. But in light of the evidence against him, McCoy’s lawyer thought the best trial strategy would be to admit guilt to the jury and hope for leniency in sentencing. McCoy adamantly opposed this plan, but his lawyer pursued it anyway and told the jury that McCoy was guilty. The jury returned three murder convictions and sentenced McCoy to death.

Today, the Supreme Court held that it violated the Sixth Amendment for McCoy’s lawyer to admit his guilt over his express objection, and it ordered the state of Louisiana to grant McCoy a new trial. The majority opinion by Justice Ginsburg accords with the principle of defendant autonomy, and the long-standing maxim that the Sixth Amendment guarantees the right to a personal defense. While a defendant is, of course, guaranteed the “Assistance of Counsel,” the defendant himself remains master of the defense and is entitled to make fundamental decisions in his own case. The heart of the Court’s analysis closely follows the framework (and language) articulated in Cato’s amicus brief, which emphasized that defendant autonomy—not ineffective assistance of counsel—was the proper lens through which to view this case:

Autonomy to decide that the objective of the defense is to assert innocence belongs in this latter category [of decisions within the defendant’s sole prerogative]. Just as a defendant may steadfastly refuse to plead guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence against her, or reject the assistance of legal counsel despite the defendant’s own inexperience and lack of professional qualifications, so may she insist on maintaining her innocence at the guilt phase of a capital trial. These are not strategic choices about how best to achieve a client’s objectives; they are choices about what the client’s objectives in fact are.

Counsel may reasonably assess a concession of guilt as best suited to avoiding the death penalty, as [McCoy’s lawyer] did in this case. But the client may not share that objective. He may wish to avoid, above all else, the opprobrium that comes with admitting he killed family members. Or he may hold life in prison not worth living and prefer to risk death for any hope, however small, of exoneration. When a client expressly asserts that the objective of “his defence” is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts, his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt.

Slip op. at 6-8 (citations omitted).

The Supreme Court’s vindication of McCoy’s autonomy is all the more crucial because the jury trial itself—that cornerstone of American criminal justice—is fast vanishing to the point of practical extinction. Our Constitution and legal heritage are premised on citizen participation in the criminal justice system. But today, more than 95 percent of criminal convictions are obtained through plea bargains, in which prosecutors can bring insurmountable pressure against defendants. Even innocent defendants are often forced to plead guilty, simply because the threat of a much harsher sentence at trial is too great. And coercive plea bargaining is exacerbated by the practical inability of most appointed defense counsel to subject prosecutions to meaningful testing. Public defenders are saddled with impossible caseloads, with individual attorneys often required to manage hundreds of different felonies per year, and even more misdemeanors. The role of defense counsel, intended to serve as the defendant’s trial advocate before a jury, has largely been reduced to that of plea negotiator.

There’s no easy solution to the problem of coercive plea bargaining, but the least we can do is not discourage trials even more than we already have. Jury trials entail risk and uncertainty, but the defendant should know that he will have a zealous advocate, committed to defending his innocence and putting the state to its burden. The Court’s decision today—guaranteeing defendants the right to decide for themselves whether to admit guilt at trial—is a small but important step toward restoring the centrality of the jury trial in our adversarial system of criminal justice.