Wednesday, March 20, 2019
In its recent opinion in McCoy v. Louisiana, the Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment guarantees a defendant the right to choose the objective of his defense and to insist that his counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experienced-based view is that confessing guilt offers the defendant the best chance to avoid the death penalty. As I recently taught my Criminal Adjudication students, in the wake of McCoy, there are interesting questions about the extent to which it prevents "lawyer override." One of these questions was raised in the recent opinion of the Ninth Circuit in United States v. Read, 2019 WL 1196654 (9th Cir. 2019).
In Read, the Ninth Circuit addressed a question of first impression: "whether a criminal defendant has the Sixth Amendment right to demand that counsel not present an insanity defense." In the case, Jonathan Read was charged with one count each of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to do bodily harm, and assault with a deadly weapon resulting in serious bodily injury. Read was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia and, after a tortured procedural history, appointed counsel. Over Read's objection, "[c]ounsel ably, but unsuccessfully, proceeded to present an insanity defense at trial. Read was convicted and sentenced to concurrent 82-month terms."
In finding that a defendant can demand that his attorney not present an insanity defense, the Ninth Circuit extended McCoy's holding:
McCoy's emphasis on the defendant’s autonomy strongly suggests that counsel cannot impose an insanity defense on a non-consenting defendant. An insanity defense is tantamount to a concession of guilt....Moreover, a defense of insanity, like a concession of guilt, carries grave personal consequences that go beyond the sphere of trial tactics. A defendant may not wish to plead insane because of a firmly held “feeling that he was not mentally ill at the time of the crime.”...Just as conceding guilt might carry “opprobrium” that a defendant might “wish to avoid, above all else,”...“a defendant, with good reason, may choose to avoid the stigma of insanity.”...A defendant may also prefer a remote chance of exoneration to the prospect of “indefinite commitment to a state institution.”