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Supreme Court Hears Murder Case Where Lawyer Admitted Client's Guilt

So if a lawyer decides to tell the jury his client is guilty -- and the the jury returns a death sentence -- does the malpractice carrier pay to execute the lawyer?

It's a bad joke, but what else can you say when a lawyer makes such a grave decision? Unfortunately for Robert McCoy, he is still on death row after his conviction for a triple murder.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court considers the sobering question: When a defendant in a capital case says "not guilty," can his attorney say "guilty?"

Guilty, or Not?

In State of Louisiana v. McCoy, McCoy was charged with first-degree murder. He claimed his innocence, but his lawyer thought the evidence against his client was overwhelming.

So Larry English decided to focus on sparing him from execution, and proposed admitting guilt and pleading for a lesser sentence. McCoy refused and the judge denied a motion to excuse the attorney from the case.

At trial, McCoy testified in his own defense that he was out of the state at the time of the murders. English, however, said in closing that his client was guilty of second-degree murder because of mental deficiencies.

On appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, McCoy is asking for a new trial because his lawyer disobeyed his instructions. The court will hear oral arguments in the case next week.

"Basic Decisions"

In his brief, McCoy says a criminal defendant has the right "to make certain basic decisions that shape his defense -- including the choice between conceding guilt or going to trial and requiring prosecutors to prove their case."

Louisiana argues that McCoy could have fired his attorney and represented himself. His attorney may have disregarded his client's instruction, but he was not obliged to put on false evidence.

The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed, saying McCoy's attorney pursued a reasonable strategy. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers disagreed, filing a brief on McCoy's behalf.

English, in the meantime, has pursued a career in real estate. Still, he maintains he did the right thing when he said his client was guilty in a failed attempt to save his life.

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