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Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Rules Defense Attorney Violated McCoy, Reverses Capital Convictions and Orders New Trial

by Chad Marks

The Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas ruled that defense counsel’s actions conceding guilt against defendant’s express wishes during trial violated his Sixth Amendment rights under McCoy.

Albert Turner was charged with the December 2009 killing of both his wife and mother-in-law. His 12-year-old daughter witnessed the murders and identified Turner during a call to 911.

Defense counsel had plans to pursue a trial strategy admitting guilt and focusing on obtaining a life sentence rather than the death penalty. Turner objected to that defense, maintaining that he was innocent. Prior to the trial, he also voiced his desire to take the stand and testify on his own behalf in regards to his innocence.

Despite his client’s explicit wishes, during opening statements, defense counsel conceded Turner killed the two victims. Counsel described the death of Turner’s wife as a crime of passion and argued that the death of his mother-in-law was accidental. Turner eventually took the stand in his own defense, testifying (contrary to his attorney’s opening statement) that he did not kill his wife and mother-in-law and that he was misidentified as the killer by his daughter.

During closing arguments, defense counsel again stated that Turner committed the murders. The jury subsequently returned a verdict of guilt, and Turner was sentenced to death.

Under Texas Code of Criminal Procedure Article 37.071, an appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeals is automatic in cases involving a sentence of death.

The Court began its analysis by noting that the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in McCoy v. Louisiana, 138 S. Ct. 1500 (2018), governs this case. The McCoy Court held that the Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants “the right to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experience-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty.” The McCoy Court further instructed that asserting one’s innocence constitutes an objective of representation and is not simply a trial tactic; the decision to admit guilt is the exclusive right of the defendant, not the attorney. Thus, the attorney may not override the defendant’s decision to maintain his or her innocence.

The Court of Criminal Appeals stated that the similarities between the facts of the present case and those in McCoy “are striking.” The defense attorneys’ strategy in both cases to avoid the death penalty was to admit the defendants killed the victims but argued that they were guilty of lesser crimes, not capital offenses. In both cases, the defendants adamantly objected and testified that they didn’t commit the murders. And the Court observed that both defendants proffered a “difficult to fathom” conspiracy theory defense.

Nevertheless, the Court ruled that Turner, like McCoy, had the right to maintain his innocence and not have his own defense attorney contradict his claim by conceding he killed the victims. This decision along with McCoy serve as notice to defense attorneys that they are required to accede to the wishes of their client with respect to the decision to assert innocence. Defense attorneys are not permitted to act contrary to their client’s decision, even if they believe it’s in their client’s best interests.

The Court concluded that Turner’s defense attorney violated McCoy, which constitutes a structural error, meaning that automatic reversal of conviction is required. The McCoy court explained ineffective assistance of counsel analysis does not apply to this scenario because what’s at issue is “a client’s autonomy, not counsel’s competence.”

Accordingly, the Court reversed his convictions and remanded for a new trial. See: Turner v. State, 2018 Tex. Crim. App. LEXIS 1101 (2018). 

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