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Can your lawyer overrule your decision to say you’re innocent?

On behalf of Dolan + Zimmerman LLP January 17, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court has just heard arguments in a case where a criminal defense attorney overruled his client’s decision to insist on his innocence at trial. In a Louisiana death penalty case, the attorney gauged that there was overwhelming evidence of the defendant’s guilt.

He thought the only way to convince the jury to vote for life imprisonment instead of death was to admit the crimes and explain the circumstances. He believed his client had been in a fragile emotional state and lacked true intent.

The defendant was accused of the triple murder of his estranged wife’s parents and son. He insisted from the beginning that he is innocent. He claims the evidence against him was fabricated in a police cover-up of a drug trafficking conspiracy.

When the man’s public defender wouldn’t argue that the defendant had been framed, he had him removed. He would have represented himself, but a family friend and criminal defense attorney agreed to represent him.

Like the public defender, however, the second lawyer felt that arguing it was all a frame up would not work. As the Louisiana solicitor general described it, the strategy was “a futile charade.”

Until the end, the defendant continued to object to the idea of admitting guilt and trying to convince the jury to choose life behind bars. His lawyer, doing what he was certain was right, tried to save his client’s life. He stated outright that the defendant had committed the crimes. Immediately, the defendant objected, accusing his lawyer of selling him out and disregarding “all aspects” of due process.

The court allowed the lawyer to proceed. In the end, the jury chose the death penalty.

The defendant immediately appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, claiming that he had been denied his Sixth Amendment right to the effective assistance of counsel. The court denied his appeal.

The U.S. Supreme Court took up the case and heard oral arguments in January. A decision is expected by late June.

The State of Louisiana argues that, in death penalty cases, there will occasionally be situations where the defendant is best served by a lawyer overruling him or her. In this case, the defendant’s insistence on pursuing the “futile charade” of a police conspiracy gave his lawyer that right.

Several justices seemed unconvinced. Justice Neal Gorsuch’s preliminary take on the situation was that the lawyer’s actions constitute a grave legal error. The defendant deserves a new trial.

Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether a defendant who insists on an absurd defense should be considered competent to stand trial.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor seemed to think it was relatively straightforward. “People can walk themselves into jail,” she said. “But they have a right to tell their story.”