I don’t know whether Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Justice Samuel Alito of the Supreme Court watch The Good Fight, but if so, I suspect each sees a different story. At least that’s the conclusion I would draw from McCoy v. Louisiana, the bizarre death penalty case decided Monday by the Supreme Court. In ordinary English, here is the question it posed: If a defendant says he is not guilty, and refuses to plead guilty, can the lawyer nonetheless tell the jury, “My client is guilty”?
Ginsburg, joined by five other members of the Court, said no; Alito, joined by Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch said, in effect, Why not, if the client won’t see reason?
In fairness, the lawyer, Larry English, is a very sympathetic figure. He conceded guilt because he was trying to save his client, Robert McCoy, from almost certain death. McCoy, by contrast, seems like a killer with serious mental problems.
But, as Ginsburg and the majority pointed out, a Louisiana “sanity commission” found McCoy competent to stand trial. The definition of “competence” in this context, given in a Supreme Court case called Godinez v. Moran, is “sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding.” English obviously suspected that determination was wrong, but because he was McCoy’s lawyer, it was binding on him.
Here are the facts. In 2008, someone shot to death the mother, stepfather, and son of Yolanda McCoy, Robert McCoy’s estranged wife. On the night of the murders, McCoy’s mother-in-law was heard on a 911 call screaming, “She ain’t here, Robert!”—followed by shots. Police saw someone who looked like McCoy driving away from the scene in McCoy’s car. The suspect abandoned the car and got away, but in the car was a receipt for the ammunition used in the killings. Surveillance footage showed McCoy buying those bullets on the day of the murder. Two people testified that he had admitted at least one of the killings to them.
Once McCoy was arrested and charged, however, he told a story familiar to anyone who has even dipped a toe into criminal practice: He wasn’t there; he was out of town; it was a frame-up; it was a conspiracy; the police did it themselves just to get him.
In those circumstances, English understandably thought the only real question was whether his client would get the death penalty or life in prison. He tried to convince McCoy to admit guilt, then allow English to put on evidence of his mental illness, and hope for a merciful jury. It’s hard to fault that professional judgment, but McCoy wouldn’t have it. “I did not murder my family,” he said. English tried to withdraw as counsel, but the trial judge refused. “You are the attorney,” the judge said. “You have to make the trial decision of what you’re going to proceed with.”