Trial counsel’s admission that defendant killed three people, in an effort to avoid the death penalty, mandates reversal of defendant’s convictions because he was denied the right to choose the objective of his defense in violation of the Sixth Amendment. Defendant was charged with killing three family members. He entered a not guilty plea, offering an alibi defense. Over defendant’s objection, his trial attorney admitted defendant committed the killings, as best suited to avoid the death penalty. Defendant was convicted of three first degree murders and sentenced to death. His convictions were affirmed in the state court. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. Held: Reversed. The Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to the assistance of counsel for his defense. While trial management is the province of counsel, some decisions are reserved for the defendant, i.e., whether to plead guilty, waive a jury trial, testify, and forgo an appeal. “Autonomy to decide that the objective of the defense is to assert innocence” is another right reserved to the defendant. Even where trial counsel believes a concession of guilt may afford the best option to avoid a sentence of death, the defendant may not share that objective. Here, McCoy opposed his attorney’s assertion of his guilt at every opportunity and insisted on maintaining his innocence. His attorney was required to abide by that objective and not to override it by conceding guilt.
Structural error, not ineffective assistance of counsel jurisprudence, applies where it is the defendant’s right to make a choice about his own defense, not counsel’s competence, that is at issue. When alleging ineffective assistance of trial counsel, the defendant is required to show prejudice (Strickland v. Washington (1984) 466 U.S. 668). However, in this case, McCoy’s protected right to direct the objective of his defense was completely abridged when the trial court allowed defense counsel to usurp control of this issue. This violation of McCoy’s Sixth Amendment autonomy right is structural error because it abridged his right to make fundamental choices about his own defense and the effects of counsel’s admission are immeasurable. Reversal is required.
The full opinion is available on the court’s website here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/17pdf/16-8255_i4ek.pdf