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SCOTUS: Sixth Amendment Right to Autonomy — Attorney Cannot Overrule Client’s Decision to Assert Innocence at Trial

by Richard Resch

On May 14, 2018, the Supreme Court of the United States (“SCOTUS”) issued a major decision affirming criminal defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to assert their innocence at trial. The Court determined that Robert McCoy’s “right to autonomy” had been violated when his attorney conceded his guilt at trial despite McCoy’s affirmative instructions to his attorney not to do so. The Court granted McCoy a new trial. Notably, the Court explained that when a defendant’s constitutional right to autonomy has been violated by defense counsel despite defendant’s affirmative instructions to the contrary the result is an automatic reversal of the conviction, i.e., a showing of prejudice not required.  

McCoy was charged with three counts of murder. He consistently and vociferously maintained his innocence. Nevertheless, the trial court permitted his attorney to concede his guilt to the jury. The attorney did so in an attempt to avoid the death penalty, arguing that McCoy’s mental state prevented him from forming the specific intent necessary for the imposition of the death penalty.

In a bizarre spectacle, despite his attorney telling the jury that McCoy committed the murders, McCoy took the stand in his own defense, maintaining he did not commit the murders. He provided a virtually incomprehensible alibi defense for why he could not have committed them. The jury found him guilty on all counts, and at the penalty phase, the jury returned three death verdicts.

On appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling permitting McCoy’s trial counsel to concede guilt over his affirmative opposition. SCOTUS granted certiorari to resolve a split among state courts of last resort on the question of whether it is unconstitutional to permit defense counsel to concede guilt over defendant’s clear objection.

SCOTUS began its analysis by discussing Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175 (2004), in which the Court addressed whether the Constitution bars defense counsel from conceding a capital defendant’s guilt at trial when the defendant neither consents nor objects. The Nixon Court held that no “blanket rule demand[s] the defendant’s explicit consent” to admitting guilt in an effort to avoid the death penalty. In contrast to the defendant in Nixon, McCoy vociferously maintained his innocence and instructed counsel not to concede guilt.

The Court then discussed the Sixth Amendment, noting that it guarantees each criminal defendant “the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.” It explained that the decision to be represented by legal counsel “is not all or nothing.” That is, a defendant does not surrender complete control of his defense to counsel by choosing to be represented. Although defense attorneys are experts in their field, they are “still an assistant.” They are typically in charge of trial management. Gonzalez v. United States, 553 U.S. 242 (2008).

On the other hand, certain decisions “are reserved for the client—notably, whether to plead guilty, waive the right to a jury trial, testify in one’s own behalf, and forgo an appeal.” Similarly, the autonomy “to decide that the objective of the defense is to assert innocence” is reserved for the defendant. The Court explained that these types of decisions “are not strategic choices about how best to achieve a client’s objectives; they are choices about what the client’s objectives in fact are.” Defense counsel may provide his or her advice and opinion on these issues, but counsel may not overrule the affirmative decision of the defendant.

That is precisely what happened to McCoy. His attorney overruled his affirmative decision to maintain his innocence at trial. The Court held that McCoy’s constitutional rights were violated because the Sixth Amendment guarantees a criminal defendant the right to choose the objective of his defense, which includes the decision to maintain innocence or admit guilt.

After concluding that McCoy’s constitutional rights were violated, the Court discussed the appropriate remedy. It stated that since a defendant’s autonomy, and not counsel’s competence is at issue, ineffective assistance of counsel (“IAC”) jurisprudence does not apply. That’s significant since relief for IAC requires a showing of prejudice, i.e., the defendant would have had a better result but for the IAC, which is a difficult burden to satisfy.

The Court reasoned that when a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to autonomy is violated, it constitutes a “structural” error, which is not subject to harmless-error review. Structural errors affect the very framework of the trial as opposed to “simply an error in the trial process itself.” Arizona v. Fulminate, 499 U.S. 279 (1991). These types of errors signal fundamental fairness. Thus, a structural error of the type present in McCoy’s case requires that he be “accorded a new trial without any need first to show prejudice,” the Court concluded.

Accordingly, the Court reversed the judgment of the Louisiana Supreme Court and remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. See: McCoy v. Louisiana, 200 L. Ed. 2d 821 (2018). 


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Related legal case

McCoy v. Louisiana



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