Supreme Court: Lawyer Can't Admit Client's Guilt Against Client's Wishes

Claiming innocence, even if a bad idea, is a choice that a criminal defendant gets to make.

The Supreme Court has established that a criminal defense attorney may not concede the guilt of a client who insists on claiming innocence.

In the death-penalty case that led to this rule, the defendant was on trial for three murders. (McCoy v. Louisiana, 584 U. S. ____ (2018).) At the guilt phase of the trial, the defense attorney made the strategic choice of conceding that his client committed the crimes but arguing that his client was incapable of having the state of mind necessary for first-degree murder. (The strategy was to argue that the man had a "mental incapacity" that prevented him from forming specific intent.)

The defendant objected to the lawyer telling the jury that he committed the acts in question and, when testifying, claimed that he was innocent. At the trial's penalty phase, the lawyer again acknowledged his client's guilt but asked for mercy in light of the man's mental and emotional issues. The jury found the defendant guilty and recommended the death penalty.

The U.S. Supreme Court said that a lawyer has to go along with a client's refusal to admit guilt, even when the lawyer reasonably thinks admitting guilt is in the client's best interests. (Note, however, that defense lawyers generally have a duty to avoid suborning perjury.)

The Court explained that the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a defendant's right to "the Assistance of Counsel for his defence," means that someone facing charges gets to choose the defense's objective. The Court said that lawyers are entitled to make certain decisions about how to defend their clients, but not when it comes to this kind of "fundamental choice" about the defense.

Effective date: May 14, 2018