May a Lawyer Disobey a Client?

The United States Supreme Court has granted a convicted killer a new trial based upon his lawyer’s decision to disobey his client’s clear instructions.

The facts are that Robert McCoy was charged with murdering 3 family members in Louisiana. The state was seeking the death penalty. McCoy told his lawyer that he was not guilty, i.e. innocent, and that he wanted to contest his guilt. The lawyer, being convinced that the State’s evidence of guilt was overwhelming and that the only chance McCoy had of escaping the death penalty was to admit the killings, disobeyed his client’s explicit instructions and told the jury McCoy had killed the victims. The jury convicted McCoy and sentenced him to die.

There was no dispute that the lawyer disobeyed McCoy’s clear instructions.

The Court, through Justice Ginsberg, said: “We hold that a defendant has the right to insist that counsel refrain from admitting guilt, even when counsel’s experience-based view is that confessing guilt offers the best chance to avoid the death penalty.”

3 Justices dissented, saying the lawyer only admitted McCoy killed the victims, not his guilt of the offenses charged (first degree murder).

Lawyers have to make many important strategy decisions during a trial based on their training, knowledge, experience and skill. Some of those decisions require the client’s consent. If the client knowingly and voluntarily chooses to ignore the lawyer’s advice, then the lawyer must obey the client regardless of the consequences.

An exception to this rule is when a client tells his lawyer he intends to testify and tell a lie. A lawyer cannot ethically call a witness to testify whom he knows in advance intends to tell a lie. This is not to say that lawyers don’t call lying witnesses to testify but, in reality, it is very rare that a witness exposes his intent to tell a lie in advance of his testimony.

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