A lawyer cannot tell a jury that his client is guilty without the defendant’s consent, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, no matter whether the evidence of guilt is overwhelming or that it would be a good legal strategy.
Such a decision belongs to the accused alone, the court ruled in a 6-to-3 decision written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“With individual liberty — and, in capital cases, life — at stake, it is the defendant’s prerogative, not counsel’s, to decide on the objective of his defense: to admit guilt in the hope of gaining mercy at the sentencing stage, or to maintain his innocence, leaving it to the state to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt,” Ginsburg wrote.
Robert L. McCoy, convicted of killing three members of his estranged wife’s family, will get a new trial.
Despite McCoy’s order to maintain his innocence, McCoy’s lawyer Larry English told the jury in 2011 that McCoy had committed the murders. His hope was that being frank might convince the jury to convict McCoy of something less than first-degree murder and spare him from the death penalty in the sentencing phase of his trial
Ginsburg conceded that English faced a tough decision: “He had an unruly client and faced a strong government case.”
McCoy was convicted of killing his estranged wife’s mother, stepfather and son in 2008 after she had left him and gone into protective custody. Each of the victims was shot at close range.
In a 911 call, McCoy’s mother-in-law, Christine Colston Young, could be heard screaming: “She ain’t here, Robert! I don’t know where she is! The detectives have her!” A gunshot was then heard on the 911 tape, and the call was disconnected.
A car later found to be McCoy’s was seen leaving the area, and police officers discovered in the abandoned vehicle the phone that Young had used. McCoy was arrested in Idaho after hitchhiking rides from truckers. The gun used in the killings was found with him. In custody, McCoy tried to hang himself.
Still, Ginsburg wrote: “But McCoy insistently maintained: ‘I did not murder my family.’ Once he communicated that to court and counsel, strenuously objecting to English’s proposed strategy, a concession of guilt should have been off the table.”
Even if facing certain conviction, Ginsburg wrote, a defendant might still decide to take his chances, thinking that execution might be better than life in prison, or avoid “the opprobrium that comes with admitting he killed family members.”
Ginsburg distinguished McCoy’s case from one the court decided in 2004, in which Ginsburg also wrote the majority opinion. In Florida v. Nixon, the court said it did not violate an inmate’s right to competent counsel when a lawyer conceded a client’s guilt at trial.
In that case, the defendant was informed of the lawyer’s strategy, and refused to either consent or object to it.
The Louisiana Supreme Court had referred to that decision in refusing McCoy’s request for a new trial.
Ginsburg was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote a dissent, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch.
He said the majority had distorted the facts of the case. English acknowledged his client killed the family members, but argued he did not commit first-degree murder because he lacked the intent required of the crime.
“So the court’s newly discovered fundamental right simply does not apply to the real facts of this case,”Alito wrote.
He also said the circumstances of McCoy’s case were rare, like a “plant that blooms every decade or so.”
But Ginsburg noted that three other state supreme courts had dealt with the issue in the past 20 years; Louisiana’s was the first to ratify the lawyer’s actions.
The case is McCoy v. Louisiana.
The court ruled unanimously Monday that a driver of a rental car does not give up his right to object to a police search just because his name is not on the rental agreement as an authorized driver.
Such a driver still has a reasonable expectation of privacy, wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
But Terrence Byrd’s legal troubles are not over, as Kennedy explained.
In 2004, Byrd waited outside a Budget car rental facility in New Jersey in 2014 while his friend Latasha Reed rented a Ford Fusion. Outside, she gave the keys to Byrd.
Later that afternoon, he was pulled over by a trooper suspicious of Byrd’s careful driving and the fact he was in a rental car. Byrd was visibly nervous as the trooper questioned him, and then a check of the car’s plates turned up that it was rented by Reed, and that Byrd was not listed as an authorized driver. Because of that, the trooper said, Byrd could not object to a search.
In the trunk, the trooper found body armor and 49 bricks of heroin.
At trial, Byrd entered a conditional guilty plea to the resulting charges, while reserving the right to appeal the decision that he could not suppress the evidence as the result of an illegal search.
Kennedy said the lower courts were wrong to say that Byrd had no expectation of privacy because he was not listed on the rental agreement.
But the court sent back Byrd’s case to decide two other questions. If Byrd’s scheme to get the rental car was fraudulent, the court said, he may have no more right to object to a search “than a car thief.” It may also be that the troopers had probable cause to search the car because of Byrd’s actions, which would have made Byrd’s objection immaterial.
The case is Byrd v. U.S.