The U.S. Supreme Court made it clear that criminal defendants are in the driver’s seat during their trial. This ruling empowers defendants who want to clear their name in a criminal justice system that encourages plea bargains.
In a 6-3 decision, the high court sided on Monday with Robert McCoy, a Louisiana death row inmate who wanted to argue his innocence during his trial. McCoy’s lawyer, however, told the jury that his client was guilty of a 2008 triple murder. This ruling affirms that criminal defendants have a constitutional right to make key decisions that overrule their attorney.
“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,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority, granting McCoy a retrial based on the court’s interpretation of the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment.
A jury convicted McCoy in 2011 for killing the parents and son of his estranged wife. There was strong evidence to support the conviction, but McCoy appeared delusional in maintaining his innocence, according to the New York Times.
McCoy’s attorney thought the best strategy was to admit guilt and hope that the jury would spare his life. However, McCoy maintained that he was innocent and disagreed with his attorney’s approach—instructing the lawyer to argue that someone else committed the murders.
Outside of McCoy’s case, many legal experts worry that defense attorneys make “tainted choices” when it comes to advising their clients to plead guilty, according to Saint Louis University Law School professor Molly Walker Wilson.
“One reason for the unease is that plea deals are often made quickly and without adequate investigation or consultation. Once a deal is secured, the defendant forfeits the protections that come with a trial,” Wilson wrote in Kansas University’s Scholar Works.
Ginsburg relied on a 2010 law review article by Erica Hashimoto to writing her decision. “A defendant who obtains counsel must still be able to make some of the most basic decisions herself,” Hashimoto told Slate. “That includes the right to testify, the right to reject a plea deal and go to trial, and the right to contest guilt.”
Another important part of the Supreme Court’s ruling is that defendants get an automatic reversal of their conviction if their trial attorney disregarded their instructions.
“That’s important because otherwise, to get a new trial, the defendant would have to show what she would’ve done differently—and that she would’ve gotten a different, better outcome than her lawyer got. That’s virtually impossible to show; it’s a really hard burden,” Hashimoto explained.