Death Penalty and SCOTUS: Today's Decision and the Capital Defense Lawyer (McCoy v. Louisiana)

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States delved into the role that the criminal defense lawyer plays in a death penalty trial, where he fights for the life of his client as the state prosecutors demand capital punishment.

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Defense is Complex When Death Penalty Is on the Table

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It must be understood at the start that the death case is different. There are complex efforts here, where a defense team must strategize in the presentation of evidence and the assertion of argument with not only the (a) guilt phase, but the real possibility of an additional (b) sentencing phase where death is considered.  

Often this complexity has the additional burden of budgeting, because more often than not, it’s an indigent defense case. Not so in today’s SCOTUS ruling, where the defendant’s parents had the financial wherewithal to hire a private criminal defense attorney, Larry English.  

Of note, Mr. English had no prior experience as a capital lawyer and was not certified to defend death penalty cases.  Not too long after taking the case, Mr. English was seeking indigent status in order to hire needed capital case support, like investigators and mitigation specialists. 

The whirlwind of this case only escalated afterwards, and demonstrates the importance of defense counsel in death cases who have experience in dealing with mental illness issues and the unique challenges of death penalty defense. 

Now, the case returns to Louisiana for a new trial, where it is assumed experienced death penalty defense counsel will advocate for Robert McCoy. 

Read the complete opinion at the SCOTUS website.

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McCoy Background

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In McCoy v. Louisiana Robert LeRoy McCoy was arrested for killing his estranged wife’s teenaged son alongside his grandparents, at their home in Bossier City, Louisiana. His wife, Yolanda, was in protective custody out of state after separating from Robert McCoy earlier that year. Mr. McCoy was facing an arrest warrant for aggravated battery of Yolanda at the time of the shootings. 

In the 911 call made by his mother-in-law, she was recorded saying, "She ain't here, Robert ... I don't know where she is. The detectives have her. Talk to the detectives. She ain't in there, Robert."  State v. McCoy, 218 So.3d 535, 542 (La. 2016).

Police responding to the call knew to look for a white KIA known to be driven by Mr. McCoy, and immediately began a search for him in the area. McCoy was eventually arrested in Idaho. For details on his capture, read the lower state court opinion.  

The prosecution sought the death penalty. McCoy pled not guilty to first degree murder.

All along, Robert McCoy denied he shot these people. McCoy argued that he was being framed by law enforcement after he had squealed on local police being corrupt and selling drugs. 

Shortly after the Louisiana prosecutors filed notice of intent to seek the death penalty, his defense team moved for an evaluation of his mental capacity. He was found competent to stand trial. State, 218 So.3d at 544.

Within ninety days of his trial setting, McCoy was operating without counsel as his indigent defense counsel had withdrawn based upon a conflict of interest. McCoy had been representing himself when attorney Larry English appeared, asking the court’s permission to enter the case as counsel for the defendant.

At that time, Mr. English admitted he was not certified to try death penalty cases. He told the judge he had contacted board certified lawyers for their assistance. After the judge confirmed that Mr. McCoy understood that Larry English was not certified in death penalty cases, the new lawyer was approved by the court.

His motion for a continuance of the rapidly approaching trial date was not. State 218 So.3d at 545. English appealed that ruling, based upon his need to build a legal team to support him in defending a capital case, and successfully having the trial reset back nine months.

Things moved forward, and there was another appellate skirmish involving a defense motion to have McCoy declared indigent so English could hire a mitigation expert, an investigator, a social worker, and a mental health expert. English argued these experts were needed at this juncture because the defense must prepare both for trial and for a sentencing phase if guilt was found. 

English admitted to the court that McCoy was not in agreement with this request, but that this would not be in the defendant's best interest. English told the court that in his opinion, his client suffered from "severe mental and emotional issues that have an impact upon this case." Mr. English asked the trial court to "order that Mr. McCoy submit to the experts that are required in a capital murder case." State 218 So.3d at 546.

McCoy filed his own motions with the court, voicing his disagreement with English’s requests, and then withdrew them.

There were hearings held on McCoy’s defense before the trial. English advised the court that while he had attorney-advisors, he would be trying the case alone. McCoy confirmed to the court that this was okay with him. Another motion for continuance for the defense was denied. 

The appeals court voiced its concern that McCoy was going to trial with only one defense lawyer, who was not certified for capital defense. The continuance was granted, with the appeals court instructing the trial court to "ensure that Mr. McCoy is, or has been, fully apprised on the record of the benefits of having two capital-defense qualified attorneys and that McCoy has knowingly and intelligently waived same.”  State, 218 So.3d at 547-8.

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Key Considerations: English and McCoy

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Ultimately, McCoy was found guilty of the killings and sentenced to death. His appeals based upon ineffective assistance of counsel made their way to the Supreme Court of the United States, where McCoy won his fight to have the death sentence overturned.

He gets a new trial.

From the SCOTUS opinion, the key factors here in the dealings between attorney English and his client McCoy were:

1. Not that the defense lawyer encouraged McCoy take a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence, inasmuch as

2. The defense lawyer telling his client that his trial strategy was to admit McCoy’s guilt to the jury at trial in hopes that he could win against the death penalty during the sentencing phase and ignoring his client’s disagreement with it; and

3. The defense lawyer going forward with that strategy, urging the jury to consider his client as “crazy” and “living in a fantasy world,” as this would go against the needed intent required to be shown for a first-degree murder conviction.

From SCOTUS, it was recognized that Larry English implemented this trial tactic with the honorable motive of trying to save his client’s life. 

Nevertheless, SCOTUS rules that McCoy has a constitutional right to make key decisions about his defense. No matter how well-meaning the lawyer’s motivations, he must not go against his client’s instructions to him on core matters like pleading guilty to the crime. 

English could not override McCoy’s right to maintain his innocence, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary that would be presented to the jury. From SCOTUS:

“The Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to choose the objective of his defense and to insist that his 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.” 

For more on death penalty defense, see:

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