Friday, September 7, 2018

Client Autonomy And Concessions Of Guilt

The Louisiana Supreme Court has reversed a murder conviction, finding that defense counsel's concession of guilt over the defendant's objection amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel

During the trial, defense counsel conceded defendant killed [12 year old victim] Justin. However, defense counsel argued that the jury could not find defendant guilty of first-degree murder because the state failed to prove defendant had specific intent to kill and failed to prove defendant was engaged in an aggravated kidnapping or a second degree kidnapping when Justin died. The defense rested in the culpability phase of the trial without calling any witnesses.

A unanimous jury found defendant guilty of first-degree murder and determined defendant should be sentenced to death.

The court cited the recent United States Supreme Court decision  in McCoy v. Louisiana, -- U.S. --, 138 S. Ct. 1500 (2018). 

In this case, Mr. Horn argues his Sixth Amendment right to counsel was violated when his attorney conceded his guilt over his explicit objection. The record demonstrates that defendant’s attorney admitted that defendant killed Justin and also suggested to the jury that the evidence supported a finding that he molested, or attempted to molest Justin. Counsel specifically told the jury he was not asking them to find defendant “not guilty,” and further stated that the facts fit second-degree murder or manslaughter. The record further demonstrates that Mr. Horn disagreed with his counsel’s decision to concede guilt as part of the defense strategy and that defendant made the district court aware of the disagreement both before and during the trial...

In this court, defendant asserts the Supreme Court’s decision in McCoy is dispositive and requires a reversal of his conviction. By contrast, the state suggests McCoy is not controlling in this case because defendant did not claim outright innocence and instructed his attorneys to make an argument for accidental killing under the negligent homicide statute. After review of the record and considering the Court’s decision in McCoy, we reject the state’s argument and decline to restrict application of the holding in McCoy solely to those cases where a defendant maintains his absolute innocence to any crime. McCoy is broadly written and focuses on a defendant’s autonomy to choose the objective of his defense. Although Mr. McCoy’s objective was to pursue a defense of innocence by presenting an alibi defense, Mr. Horn’s objective was to assert a defense of innocence to the crime charged and the lesser-included offenses, i.e. asserting his innocence to any degree of murder. Mr. Horn was charged with first-degree murder. The only verdicts the jury was permitted to enter were “guilty,” “guilty of second degree murder,” “guilty of manslaughter,” or “not guilty.” See La. C.C.P. art. 814. The jury would not have been permitted to enter a plea relative to negligent homicide. The fact that defendant instructed his attorney to admit guilt to this different crime as part of his defense objective did not give defense counsel the authority to admit guilt to the crime charged or the lesser-included crimes, and does not cause us to disregard the holding of McCoy. While defense counsel may use his professional judgment to develop defense theories and trial strategies based on his assessment of the evidence, he cannot usurp the fundamental choices provided directly to a criminal defendant under the Constitution.

Chief Justice Johnson authored the opinion. Justice Weimer concurred and wrote on the sufficiency of evidence for first degree murder. (Mike Frisch)

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