A death row inmate has been granted a new trial after the United States Supreme Court determined his constitutional rights were violated by his trial attorney, who told the jury his client was guilty even though the inmate wanted to maintain his innocence.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the 6-3 majority, determining that a lawyer "may not admit her client's guilt of a charged crime over the client's intransigent objection to that admission." Inmate Robert McCoy was represented by Larry English at trial, who sought a lesser conviction of second-degree murder to save McCoy from the death penalty.
McCoy was charged with the murders of Christine and Willie Young and Gregory Colston; the mother, stepfather, and son of McCoy's estranged wife. McCoy was initially given a public defender and he maintained his innocence. Before trial, McCoy fired his assigned attorney and his parents retained Larry English on his behalf. English determined the evidence against McCoy was too damning and the only way to avoid a death sentence would be to admit guilt for second-degree murder. McCoy tried to fire English and refused to plead guilty. The trial court would not relieve English as McCoy's counsel.
After English told the jury that McCoy was the killer, the jury returned a guilty verdict of first-degree murder and sentenced McCoy to death. McCoy sought a new trial on grounds that his constitutional rights were violated when English refused to follow his wishes.
Ginsburg noted that the Sixth Amendment guarantees all criminal defendants the assistance of counsel, but a "defendant need not surrender control entirely to counsel." According to Ginsburg, a defendant has the right to "steadfastly refuse to plead guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence...and reject the assistance of legal counsel despite the defendant's own inexperience and lack of professional qualifications."
McCoy's new attorney, Richard Bourke, has pledged to honor his client's "vehement protestationf of innocence, rather than conceding his guilt." Justice Samuel Alito wrote a dissent, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, disagreeing with the majority's discovery of a new constitutional right - a criminal defendant's right to demand his or her attorney contest his guilt no matter the circumstances.
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