WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court struggled Wednesday with a murder suspect's demand to mount an incredible defense that his lawyer believed would result in a death sentence.
On one hand, a majority of justices seemed to agree that defense attorney Larry English should not have told a jury that Louisiana's Robert McCoy killed three people when McCoy, in the face of overwhelming evidence, still denied it.
But on the other hand, they worried that allowing defendants to make too many choices about trial strategy when their lives are at stake would, in Justice Stephen Breyer's words, let them "walk right into the death chamber."
So while the result of the case is likely to be a new trial for McCoy, the high court's nine lawyers clearly had doubts about a rule that would strip lawyers of their power to direct the defense.
"The idea is that lawyers know better, sometimes, than their clients," Justice Elena Kagan said during a spirited oral argument about the law, trials, courts and the Constitution. Because of that, she said later, "I totally understand that this lawyer was in a terrible position."
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor, taking the lead in defending McCoy's right to a new trial, said lawyers must allow their clients to make the most basic decisions affecting their lives.
"People can walk themselves into jail. They can walk themselves, regrettably, into the gas chamber," Sotomayor said. "But they have a right to tell their story."
The facts of the case were straightforward. The mother, stepfather and son of McCoy's estranged wife were found shot to death in 2008. Everything pointed to McCoy — the 911 call, the getaway car, the chase, a phone, personal items, the gun and bullets, a Walmart video, testimony from a brother and two friends, and more.
English told McCoy he planned to tell the jury in his 2011 trial that his client committed the acts but was not guilty of first-degree murder because of his mental state. He later told the jury that McCoy was "crazy" and had "snapped."
But McCoy insisted he was 240 miles away in Houston at the time of the murders and had witnesses who could offer an alibi. He said police committed the killings in a "drug deal gone bad."
In the end, English's strategy didn't work. McCoy was found guilty and sentenced to death. The state Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that he did not deserve a new trial.
Seth Waxman, a veteran Supreme Court litigator who has defended death row inmates for 40 years, told the justices that McCoy's rights to a fair trial under the Sixth Amendment were violated. But several of them expressed concern that defendants should not be able to overrule their lawyers' better judgment.
Chief Justice John Roberts said defense lawyers should not have to back up their clients' claims if they don't agree. Justice Samuel Alito said lawyers should be able to try a different strategy, as long as they don't say the "magic words" by admitting to the crime.
But when Louisiana Solicitor General Elizabeth Murrill said lawyers in English's position should be able to disallow a defense strategy that would be "a futile charade," most of the justices disagreed.
A lawyer can be silent on some of his client's claims, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said. But when it comes to guilt or innocence, "a lawyer can't make that concession."