The Supreme Court held in McCoy v. Louisiana that 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. In doing so, the Court overturned a Louisiana inmate’s death sentence because his lawyer had told the jury against the inmate’s objection that the inmate was guilty. This case is an important reminder for defense counsel about important ethical limitations on their role as counsel.
The majority in McCoy acknowledged that the defendant’s lawyer was “in a difficult position: he had an unruly client and faced a strong government case.” The defense lawyer’s apparent purpose in McCoy was to demonstrate that the defendant was suffering from a mental defect and incapable of forming the crime’s requisite specific intent. This was a reasonable, but unethical, strategy to help his client avoid the death penalty.
I find it helpful to return to the California Rules of Professional Conduct to confirm my ethical obligations to the client, court, public, and other counsel. Each case involves unique ethical considerations, even though the roles of counsel and the client are seemingly clearly defined. For instance, a criminal defendant’s lawyer may be responsible for what the Court describes as “trial management,” including what evidence to object to and what arguments to pursue. On the other hand, the defendant has the right to make certain fundamental decisions, including whether to plead guilty or waive the right to a jury trial, as well as the decision to maintain one’s innocence. These distinct roles can rub against each other in contexts like in McCoy, where a client if found to meet the low threshold of being fit stand trial, but may not, from the lawyer’s perspective, be making a reasonable tactical decision for her case. Ultimately, McCoy reminds defense counsel that clients who are fit to stand trial must respect a client’s autonomy.
The Court’s ruling in McCoy highlights the principle that the client alone is the master of his defense. This precept finds resonance in the Sixth Amendment, which grants the right to put on a defense directly and personally to the accused-not to his lawyer and not to the state. Accordingly, my approach is to offer well-researched, candid legal advice to my clients on the strength of the case against them, and all other relevant factors. I explain to my clients my opinion on whether it is best to enter a guilty plea or go to trial, and make sure they understand the relevant factors they must weigh to decide which course of action to take.
Overall, I think it is extremely important to having meaningful dialogue with clients about fundamental decisions that they must make for their cases. Defense lawyers must remember that, at the end of the day, it is the client whose life is on the line, and effective representation requires us to respect our clients’ autonomy while providing them with all relevant information and thoughtful legal advice.