Friday, January 19, 2018

Can acting in a client's best interest violate the 14th Amendment?

On Wednesday the US Supreme Court heard a case out of Louisiana that raised the question of whether or not a lawyer can tell a jury his client is guilty - over his client's wishes.

Robert McCoy lived in Louisiana with his wife Yolanda, their infant daughter and her son. Mr. McCoy was a violent man who threatened Yolanda with a knife. She eventually left with the children. She fled with her daughter but left her son with her parents so he could finish school.

Mr. McCoy killed her son and her parents and was charged with the three murders. There was a 911 call from Yolanda's mother in which she is heard talking to Mr. McCoy telling him that Yolanda and the baby weren't there. Then there was a gunshot and the line went dead.

Despite the evidence against him, Mr. McCoy maintained his innocence throughout the case. He told police the murders were the result of a drug deal gone bad.

At first Mr. McCoy was represented by a public defender - but he fired his attorneys when they refused to subpoena his alleged alibi witnesses. His parents then hired Larry English for the princely sum of $5,000 to represent their son.

Now, as an aside, if that was indeed the fee paid to retain Mr. English's services, someone should have known that this wasn't going to work out well for Mr. McCoy. The amount of the fee is much to low to represent someone facing the death penalty. It is a fee that screams out "I'm looking for a plea deal!" to anyone who would listen.

Mr. English set about trying to convince Mr. McCoy that it was in his best interest to plead guilty in an attempt to get the death penalty off the table. But Mr. McCoy refused to change his plea. So, Mr. English set about on his trial strategy to save Mr. McCoy's life -- even if he didn't want saving.
“People can walk themselves into jail. They can walk themselves, regrettably, into the gas chamber. But they have a right to tell their story.” - Justice Sonia Sotomayor
At trial Mr. English repeatedly told the jury that Mr. McCoy was guilty of the murders. According to Mr. English, his goal was to get the jury to convict McCoy of the lesser charge of second-degree murder because he suffered from diminished mental capacity, thus sparing his life. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Mr. English was not up on the law in Louisiana (as if this should have surprised anyone). You see, in Louisiana you are only eligible for a diminished capacity defense if you have entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Oops.

In the end, Mr. McCoy was convicted on all three counts and sentenced to death. He then appealed, arguing that his right to due process was violated when his attorney told the jury he had committed the murders, despite his protests of innocence.

On the one hand, this matter seems fairly straight forward. An attorney works for his client. He doesn't have to like his client. He doesn't have to agree with his client. But his job is to represent his client to the best of his ability. A client has the right to enter a plea of his choice. A client has the right to request a bench trial or a jury trial. A client has the right to take the stand to testify if he so desires. The attorney's role is to advise the client as to the best course of action.

But what if the client ignores what's in his best interest? What if a client has the chance to mitigate the damage but chooses not to do so? What if the client is following down a path that will lead him straight to the death chamber?

What is an attorney to do in those circumstances? If we are to act in our client's best interest, can we ignore our client's wishes when it comes to trial strategy? We can all advise our clients to take a plea deal when the arrangement is in their best interest - even if they don't realize it; but we can't force them to take the deal.

What was the sin that Mr. English committed? Was it his trial strategy of conceding guilt in hopes of saving Mr. McCoy's life or was it his misunderstanding of the law? I would argue it is the latter. In this case the real problem was the attorney's incompetence. Whether or not one's trial strategy deprives the client of due process is a moot point when the attorney has no idea what the law is.

I think the larger questions to be answered are: to what extent are we mouthpieces for our clients and just how far can we go in being advocates for our clients? And when it comes to representing those accused of criminal acts, where does the concept of due process draw the line?

See also:

Amy Howe, "Argument analysis: Concern for death-row inmate's right likely to trump line-drawing worries," SCOTUSblog (1/17/2018)


Anonymous said...

Seth Kretzer and James Volberding claimed they were assisting their client Raphael Holiday when they “opposed their own client’s motion for a stay of execution before the Fifth Circuit.” Holiday was executed,and the State Bar evidently didn't give a shit that two criminal defense lawyers assisted the state with murder.

Dr. Frank said...

Criminal Defense "Lawyers" James Volberding and Seth Kretzer likewise walked their client Raphael Holiday to the death chamber when they “opposed their own client’s motion for a stay of execution before the Fifth Circuit.” The State Bar didn't give a shit either, that these two so-called "lawyers" assisted the State with the murder of their defendant. Why even hire a CDL if they are just going to abandon their ethics or legal responsibilities.
As a surgeon, I may forgo re-starting the patient's heart during the next bypass, especially if the patient is a lawyer.

Paul B. Kennedy said...

What Mr. Kretzer and Mr. Volberding did was beyond despicable. The fact they are still practicing law is abhorrent. But what they did is distinguishable from what happened in this case.

Those two acted to the detriment of their client because they were upset that someone else filed for a stay of execution. Instead of being adults about it, they acted like petulant little children.

In this case the attorney thought he was acting in a way that would save his client from the death chamber. Unfortunately he was either incompetent or in way over his head. I think the issue is really whether or not the defendant was harmed by his attorney's ineffective assistance.