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Who Decides if you Plead Guilty or Innocent?

Armando Nava

When you work with a defense attorney, you’ll undergo a consultation with the purpose of determining the best strategy for defending you against the prosecution. At each step, your attorney should explain your options and the scenarios that might result from pursuing each option. Your lawyer is also well-positioned to make an educated guess about likely outcomes based on his or her experience in the courts, but ultimately, decisions about your life and freedom are yours to make. Armed with this counsel, and assisted by a defender who knows how to navigate the legal process, you should feel confident that your rights will be protected. Your defender does a lot of the legal legwork, but who makes the ultimate decision about how to proceed with your case? This question is currently being debated in the U.S. Supreme Court where they are arguing the case of McCoy v. Louisiana.

Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel

The constitutional argument central to McCoy v. Louisiana concerns the sixth amendment right to counsel. Specifically, if your lawyer decides to tell the jury you’re guilty when you’ve expressed a wish to maintain your innocence, does this violate your rights? One would certainly think so. This rogue defense happened to Robert McCoy, who refused to take a plea when facing charges of first-degree murder. His defense attorney hoped that admitting guilt and taking a plea would reduce the charges to second-degree murder. Unfortunately, this strategy failed to work. McCoy was found guilty of first-degree murder, and the judge returned a death sentence.  We can’t know what would have happened if McCoy had been supported in his desire to maintain his innocence. Without a crystal ball, we can’t know whether he would have been found guilty. Clearly, his attorney thought he would have been found guilty, or else he wouldn’t have gambled his client’s life on a strategy that sought to reduce the charges (and failed). The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed with the attorney that he chose the best strategy in representing his client, but this still leaves the question unanswered: Does a defense attorney have the right to essentially overrule his client’s wishes and support the prosecution’s argument, or does this violate the defendant’s right to choose his counsel?

When You Disagree With Your Defense Attorney

The client-attorney relationship needs to be a relationship of trust. Your lawyer should be prepared to address your questions and concerns as they work with you, not against you. If your defense attorney is pushing you to concede guilt, or if you fear he or she might act against your express wishes, it might be time to hire a different attorney. You have a right to representation that respects the presumption of innocence. Without the presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, our judicial system fails to uphold due process.  

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