As you might imagine, defense lawyers hear all kinds of crazy and often implausible stories from clients. The police, prosecutors, and judge don't believe it. Jurors may not believe it. If the defense attorneys don't believe it, can they just announce that their client is guilty?
Case solved, let's all go home.
The problem is that sometimes those outlandish stories turn out to be true. Sometimes, a defense attorney's job involves investigating their client's claims whether they believe them or not. Sometimes, a defense attorney's job involves presenting a client's claims even though they seem unlikely.
Who is driving the bus when it comes to decisions about pleading guilty or not guilty? Decisions about trial strategy?
Ladies and Gentlemen, My Client is Guilty...
Attorney Larry English represented Robert McCoy who was charged with capital murder in Louisiana. Although English was not certified to represent death penalty defendants, he decided that there was no way that he could persuade a jury that McCoy was innocent and therefore he had no choice but to concede guilt and focus on the penalty phase of the trial.
"There is no way reasonably possible that you can listen to the evidence in this case and not come to any other conclusion than Robert McCoy was the cause of these individuals' deaths," said lawyer Larry English.
The only problem was that his client insisted that he was innocent and refused to concede guilt. At trial, McCoy informed the judge that his attorney intended to tell the jury that McCoy was guilty against his wishes, but the judge allowed English to proceed. McCoy objected to his own defense attorney during English's opening statement, but the judge allowed English to proceed.
English was convicted and sentenced to death. At a post-conviction proceeding where attorneys were asking for a new trial, English testified against his own client and in support of his client's execution:
"I'm a seasoned criminal trial lawyer, had been doing this for a number of years, and I had never had a case where the evidence was so overwhelming against a client."
The Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously upheld the death penalty, holding that" [a]dmitting guilt in an attempt to avoid the imposition of the death penalty appears to constitute reasonable trial strategy..."
What is a Reasonable Trial Strategy?
It is true that an attorney's actions may not be ineffective assistance of counsel if the attorney was employing a "reasonable trial strategy." It is also true that admitting guilt to focus on the penalty phase is a reasonable trial strategy if the client agrees.
But, can a deprivation of your client's constitutional rights be a "reasonable trial strategy?" What if an attorney prevents their client from testifying when the client demands their right to testify? Forces a client to testify when they chose to remain silent? Are these also "reasonable trial strategies?"
What Rights Does a Defendant Have When Their Attorney Disagrees with Them?
In general, the attorney is in charge of trial strategy decisions including how the evidence is presented, which witnesses are called to testify, and how cross-examination, opening, and closing are conducted. The attorney can and should refuse to file motions that are frivolous or factually incorrect.
On the other hand, there are certain decisions that every person has the right to make when they are on trial and that cannot be made by the person's attorney. First and foremost is the right to decide how to plead. Although the attorney makes the recommendation to the client and can attempt to persuade a client to not make what the attorney thinks is a bad decision, only the client can say whether they will plead guilty, not guilty, or not guilty by reason of insanity.
The decision as to whether or not to testify also belongs to the defendant alone, upon the advice of counsel. Although the Court will examine it closely and make a determination as to a defendant's competence, even the decision as to whether to have an attorney or represent oneself is the client's decision.
What is the Defense Attorney's Job?
The defense attorney's job is to win their client's case using any means that are legal and ethical.
But, the defense attorney's job is also to represent their client's interests and to speak for their client. Although we can explain to a client that the evidence is overwhelming and we can strongly recommend a plea that we think is appropriate, in the end, it is the client's case, the client's life, and the client's decision.
McCoy's case is now on appeal to the United States Supreme Court. We will see if they agree with the unanimous Louisiana Supreme Court that it is ok for a defense lawyer to announce their client's guilt over the client's objections...
The Myrtle Beach criminal defense lawyers at Axelrod and Associates have represented clients charged with all types of crimes from speeding tickets to capital murder. If you have been arrested and charged with a crime in Myrtle Beach, SC, schedule a free consultation with a Myrtle Beach criminal defense lawyer on the Axelrod team. Call us at (843) 916-9300 or fill out our contact form today.