McCoy v. Louisiana, No. 16–8255.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJustice GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation200 L.Ed.2d 821,138 S.Ct. 1500
Parties Robert Leroy MCCOY, Petitioner v. LOUISIANA.
Decision Date14 May 2018
Docket NumberNo. 16–8255.

138 S.Ct. 1500
200 L.Ed.2d 821

Robert Leroy MCCOY, Petitioner
v.
LOUISIANA.

No. 16–8255.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Jan. 17, 2018.
Decided May 14, 2018.


Seth P. Waxman, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

Elizabeth Murrill, Solicitor General, for Respondent.

Richard Bourke, Joe Vigneri, New Orleans, LA, Meghan Shapiro, Alexandria, VA, Alan E. Schoenfeld, Michael D. Gottesman, Wilmer Cutler Pickering, Hale and Dorr LLP, New York, NY, Seth P. Waxman, Danielle Spinelli, Catherine M.A. Carroll, David Lehn, Jonathan A. Bressler, Samuel M. Strongin, Wilmer Cutler Pickering, Hale and Dorr LLP, Washington, DC, for Petitioner.

J. Schuyler Marvin, District Attorney, Office of the District Attorney, Benton, LA, Jeff Landry, Louisiana Attorney General, Elizabeth B. Murrill, Solicitor General, Colin Clark, Deputy Solicitor General, Andrea Barient, Assistant Attorney General, Office of the Attorney General, Louisiana Department of Justice, Baton Rouge, LA, for Respondent.

Justice GINSBURG delivered the opinion of the Court.

In Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175, 125 S.Ct. 551, 160 L.Ed.2d 565 (2004), this Court considered whether the Constitution bars defense counsel from conceding a capital defendant's guilt at trial "when [the] defendant, informed by counsel, neither consents nor objects," id., at 178, 125 S.Ct. 551. In that case, defense counsel had several times explained to the defendant a proposed guilt-phase concession strategy, but the defendant was unresponsive. Id., at 186, 125 S.Ct. 551. We held that when counsel confers with the defendant and the defendant remains silent, neither approving nor protesting counsel's proposed concession strategy, id., at 181, 125 S.Ct. 551, "[no] blanket rule demand[s] the defendant's explicit consent" to implementation of that strategy, id., at 192, 125 S.Ct. 551.

In the case now before us, in contrast to Nixon, the defendant vociferously insisted that he did not engage in the charged acts and adamantly objected to any admission of guilt. App. 286–287, 505–506. Yet the trial court permitted counsel, at the guilt phase of a capital trial, to tell the jury the defendant "committed three murders.... [H]e's guilty." Id., at 509, 510. We hold that a defendant has the right to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel's experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty. Guaranteeing a defendant the right "to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence," the Sixth Amendment so demands. With individual liberty—and, in capital cases, life—at stake, it is the defendant's prerogative, not counsel's, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the State to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

I

On May 5, 2008, Christine and Willie Young and Gregory Colston were shot and killed in the Youngs' home in Bossier City, Louisiana. The three victims were the mother, stepfather, and son of Robert

138 S.Ct. 1506

McCoy's estranged wife, Yolanda. Several days later, police arrested McCoy in Idaho. Extradited to Louisiana, McCoy was appointed counsel from the public defender's office. A Bossier Parish grand jury indicted McCoy on three counts of first-degree murder, and the prosecutor gave notice of intent to seek the death penalty. McCoy pleaded not guilty. Throughout the proceedings, he insistently maintained he was out of State at the time of the killings and that corrupt police killed the victims when a drug deal went wrong. App. 284–286. At defense counsel's request, a court-appointed sanity commission examined McCoy and found him competent to stand trial.

In December 2009 and January 2010, McCoy told the court his relationship with assigned counsel had broken down irretrievably. He sought and gained leave to represent himself until his parents engaged new counsel for him. In March 2010, Larry English, engaged by McCoy's parents, enrolled as McCoy's counsel. English eventually concluded that the evidence against McCoy was overwhelming and that, absent a concession at the guilt stage that McCoy was the killer, a death sentence would be impossible to avoid at the penalty phase.1 McCoy, English reported, was "furious" when told, two weeks before trial was scheduled to begin, that English would concede McCoy's commission of the triple murders. Id., at 286.2 McCoy told English "not to make that concession," and English knew of McCoy's "complet[e] oppos[ition] to [English] telling the jury that [McCoy] was guilty of killing the three victims"; instead of any concession, McCoy pressed English to pursue acquittal. Id., at 286–287.

At a July 26, 2011 hearing, McCoy sought to terminate English's representation, id., at 449, and English asked to be relieved if McCoy secured other counsel, id., at 458. With trial set to start two days later, the court refused to relieve English and directed that he remain as counsel of record. Id., at 461. "[Y]ou are the attorney," the court told English when he expressed disagreement with McCoy's wish to put on a defense case, and "you have to make the trial decision of what you're going to proceed with." Id., at 469.

At the beginning of his opening statement at the guilt phase of the trial, English told the jury there was "no way reasonably possible" that they could hear the prosecution's evidence and reach "any other conclusion than Robert McCoy was the cause of these individuals' death." Id., at 504. McCoy protested; out of earshot of the jury, McCoy told the court that English was "selling [him] out" by maintaining that McCoy "murdered [his] family." Id., at 505–506. The trial court reiterated

138 S.Ct. 1507

that English was "representing" McCoy and told McCoy that the court would not permit "any other outbursts." Id., at 506. Continuing his opening statement, English told the jury the evidence is "unambiguous," "my client committed three murders." Id., at 509. McCoy testified in his own defense, maintaining his innocence and pressing an alibi difficult to fathom. In his closing argument, English reiterated that McCoy was the killer. On that issue, English told the jury that he "took [the] burden off of [the prosecutor]." Id., at 647. The jury then returned a unanimous verdict of guilty of first-degree murder on all three counts. At the penalty phase, English again conceded "Robert McCoy committed these crimes," id., at 751, but urged mercy in view of McCoy's "serious mental and emotional issues," id., at 755. The jury returned three death verdicts.

Represented by new counsel, McCoy unsuccessfully moved for a new trial, arguing that the trial court violated his constitutional rights by allowing English to concede McCoy "committed three murders," id., at 509, over McCoy's objection. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court's ruling that defense counsel had authority so to concede guilt, despite the defendant's opposition to any admission of guilt. See 2014–1449 (La.10/19/16), 218 So.3d 535. The concession was permissible, the court concluded, because counsel reasonably believed that admitting guilt afforded McCoy the best chance to avoid a death sentence.

We granted certiorari in view of a division of opinion among state courts of last resort on the question whether it is unconstitutional to allow defense counsel to concede guilt over the defendant's intransigent and unambiguous objection. 582 U.S. ––––, 138 S.Ct. 53, 198 L.Ed.2d 781 (2017). Compare with the instant case, e.g., Cooke v. State, 977 A.2d 803, 842–846 (Del.2009) (counsel's pursuit of a "guilty but mentally ill" verdict over defendant's "vociferous and repeated protestations" of innocence violated defendant's "constitutional right to make the fundamental decisions regarding his case"); State v. Carter, 270 Kan. 426, 440, 14 P.3d 1138, 1148 (2000) (counsel's admission of client's involvement in murder when client adamantly maintained his innocence contravened Sixth Amendment right to counsel and due process right to a fair trial).

II

A

The Sixth Amendment guarantees to each criminal defendant "the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." At common law, self-representation was the norm. See Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 823, 95 S.Ct. 2525, 45 L.Ed.2d 562 (1975) (citing 1 F. Pollock & F. Maitland, The History of English Law 211 (2d ed. 1909)). As the laws of England and the American Colonies developed, providing for a right to counsel in criminal cases, self-representation remained common and the right to proceed without counsel was recognized. Faretta, 422 U.S., at 824–828, 95 S.Ct. 2525. Even now, when most defendants choose to be represented by counsel, see, e.g., Goldschmidt & Stemen, Patterns and Trends in Federal Pro Se Defense, 1996–2011: An Exploratory Study, 8 Fed. Cts. L. Rev. 81, 91 (2015) (0.2% of federal felony defendants proceeded pro se ), an accused may insist upon representing herself—however counterproductive that course may be, see Faretta, 422 U.S., at 834, 95 S.Ct. 2525. As this Court explained, "[t]he right to defend is personal," and a defendant's choice in exercising that right "must be honored out of ‘that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law.’ " Ibid. (quoting

138 S.Ct. 1508
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557 practice notes
  • Garza v. Idaho, No. 17-1026
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • February 27, 2019
    ...counsel. Jones v. Barnes , 463 U.S. 745, 751, 103 S.Ct. 3308, 77 L.Ed.2d 987 (1983) ; see also McCoy v. Louisiana , 584 U. S. ––––, ––––, 138 S.Ct. 1500, 1507–08, 200 L.Ed.2d 821 (2018). In other words, filing a notice of appeal is, generally speaking, a simple, nonsubstantive act that is w......
  • Smith v. Cook, No. 17-4118
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • April 15, 2020
    ...objections" and "agreements ... regarding the admission of evidence," "is the lawyer's province." McCoy v. Louisiana , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S. Ct. 1500, 1508, 200 L.Ed.2d 821 (2018). "[A]bsent a demonstration of ineffectiveness, counsel's word on such matters is the last." Hill , 528 U.S. at ......
  • People v. Son, F076252
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • May 27, 2020
    ...for voluntary manslaughter on grounds that trial counsel committed structural error under McCoy v. Louisiana (2018) ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S.Ct. 1500, 200 L.Ed.2d 821 ( McCoy ). He further argues the trial court prejudicially erred in failing sua sponte to instruct the jury on involuntary mansl......
  • Leon v. Comm'r of Corr., AC 41039
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • April 30, 2019
    ...subject to harmless error analysis.3 In his reply brief, the petitioner relies on 189 Conn.App. 521 McCoy v. Louisiana , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S.Ct. 1500, 200 L.Ed.2d 821 (2018), which was released by the United States Supreme Court after he had filed his principal brief in the present case.Th......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
552 cases
  • Garza v. Idaho, No. 17-1026
    • United States
    • U.S. Supreme Court
    • February 27, 2019
    ...counsel. Jones v. Barnes , 463 U.S. 745, 751, 103 S.Ct. 3308, 77 L.Ed.2d 987 (1983) ; see also McCoy v. Louisiana , 584 U. S. ––––, ––––, 138 S.Ct. 1500, 1507–08, 200 L.Ed.2d 821 (2018). In other words, filing a notice of appeal is, generally speaking, a simple, nonsubstantive act that is w......
  • Smith v. Cook, No. 17-4118
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
    • April 15, 2020
    ...objections" and "agreements ... regarding the admission of evidence," "is the lawyer's province." McCoy v. Louisiana , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S. Ct. 1500, 1508, 200 L.Ed.2d 821 (2018). "[A]bsent a demonstration of ineffectiveness, counsel's word on such matters is the last." Hill , 528 U.S. at ......
  • People v. Son, F076252
    • United States
    • California Court of Appeals
    • May 27, 2020
    ...for voluntary manslaughter on grounds that trial counsel committed structural error under McCoy v. Louisiana (2018) ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S.Ct. 1500, 200 L.Ed.2d 821 ( McCoy ). He further argues the trial court prejudicially erred in failing sua sponte to instruct the jury on involuntary mansl......
  • Leon v. Comm'r of Corr., AC 41039
    • United States
    • Appellate Court of Connecticut
    • April 30, 2019
    ...subject to harmless error analysis.3 In his reply brief, the petitioner relies on 189 Conn.App. 521 McCoy v. Louisiana , ––– U.S. ––––, 138 S.Ct. 1500, 200 L.Ed.2d 821 (2018), which was released by the United States Supreme Court after he had filed his principal brief in the present case.Th......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1 books & journal articles
  • Participatory Litigation: A New Framework for Impact Lawyering.
    • United States
    • Stanford Law Review Vol. 74 Nbr. 1, January 2022
    • January 1, 2022
    ...decision--not the kind of issue that clients were supposed to decide."). (233.) Comm, on Pro. Resp., supra note 231, at 458. (234.) 138 S. Ct. 1500, 1508 (235.) Id. (236.) Id. (237.) Id. (quoting Gonzalez v. United States, 553 U.S. 242, 248 (2008)). (238.) 960 F.3d 136, 143-44 (3d Cir. 2020......

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