Reinforcing Autonomy: Legal Ethics and Constitutional Compliance in Indigent Criminal Defense.

AuthorBrand, George R.

McCoy v. Louisiana, 138 S. Ct. 1500 (2018).


    Regulating the judicial system is an inherently difficult task. With multiple stakeholder groups often at odds with each other and within themselves, it is almost impossible to create laws, rules, and norms that satisfy everyone. The unnervingly peculiar capital murder case of McCoy v. Louisiana typifies the many competing ideologies and motivations constantly in flux in the American judicial system. (1) While unique idiosyncrasies within this case frame a series of events unlikely to be repeated, the Supreme Court of the United States' split decision educes this ongoing debate amongst judges, litigants, and legislatures on the best practices and purposes undergirding the entire judicial system. (2) This improbable, upsetting, and downright odd outlier case wields implications for constitutional interpretation, legal ethics, indigent criminal defendants, and the philosophy of the judicial system at large.

    The beginning of this Note first distinguish the conflicting motivations of the varying stakeholders in the questions posed by this case and trace applicable legal doctrines back to their foundational roots. Next, the middle will stratify the ongoing ethical debate pinpointed by this case and propose a potential middle ground solution that might provide limited satisfaction for both sides. Lastly, the end will remark on a glaring atrocity left by the practical application of this case and issue a call to action to prevent similar shortcomings in the future.


    McCoy v. Louisiana is an appeal from defendant Robert McCoy, who was sentenced to death after being convicted of three counts of first-degree murder in Louisiana state court. (3) McCoy sought a new trial on the grounds of Sixth Amendment violations stemming from structural error committed by his former attorney, Larry English. (4)

    McCoy was accused of shooting and killing Christine Colston, Willie Young, and Gregory Colston on May 5, 2008 in Bossier City, Louisiana. (5) These three victims were the mother, stepfather, and son (from a different father), respectively, of McCoy's ex-wife, Yolanda Colston. (6) McCoy and Yolanda had recently separated less than a month before the murder after a domestic dispute in which she claimed he "pinned her down on the bed at knifepoint and threatened to kill her and then kill himself" (7) McCoy was issued an arrest warrant for aggravated battery after this incident, and he failed to show up to work and fled to California in an effort to evade arrest. (8) McCoy returned from California the day before the murder took place. (9) The murder took place at Yolanda's parents' house, where Gregory also lived while finishing up his senior year in high school. (10)

    A tremendous amount of evidence linked McCoy to the murders of his three ex-family members. (11) A 911 call from the scene of the murder detailed Christine Colston screaming, "She ain't here, Robert... I don't know where she is. The detectives have her. Talk to the detectives. She ain't in there, Robert," before a gunshot was fired and the call was disconnected. (12) "She" was presumably referencing McCoy's estranged wife, Yolanda, who had recently entered protective custody out-of-state, along with her infant child (froma different father) in the wake of McCoy's recent aggravated battery arrest. (13) When police officers arrived at the murder scene, dashboard video footage recorded a car registered to McCoy fleeing the scene. (14) The footage also recorded a black male matching McCoy's physical description jump out of the driver's side of the car, abandon the car, scale a fence, and run away across a busy highway. (15)

    The cordless telephone used to make the 911 call was found inside the car. (16) Police suspected McCoy took the phone out of the house with him after Christine used it to call 911. (17) Also found inside the car were a Walmart bag with a box of .380-caliber ammunition (the same caliber used in the murders) and a Walmart cash receipt dating the purchase of the ammunition as earlier that same day. (18) Walmart video surveillance footage recorded a person matching McCoy's physical description making the ammunition purchase at the same time shown on the ammunition receipt. (19) Finally, a friend of McCoy testified that McCoy had asked her to buy bullets for him, or to at least loan him money for the bullets. (20) After refusing both requests, she agreed to accompany McCoy to Walmart, and he went into the store and bought the bullets himself. (21)

    Five days after the murders took place, police apprehended McCoy at a truck stop in Lewiston, Idaho. (22) He had hitchhiked with truck drivers across the United States. (23) McCoy was carrying a pay stub, birth certificate, social security card, insurance cards, credit cards, and identification cards. (24) Most importantly, McCoy also had a loaded handgun on the floor behind the passenger seat of the truck he was riding in. (25) A firearms examiner concluded at trial that all four bullets used during the triple homicide were fired from the gun McCoy had when he was apprehended in Idaho. (26) While in custody and awaiting extradition to Louisiana, McCoy unsuccessfully tried to hang himself with a bed sheet. (27) McCoy was finally returned to Louisiana two days after the bed sheet incident and nine days after the murders took place. (28)

    Despite the overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary, McCoy has constantly asserted his innocence over the eleven years since the incident took place. (29) After a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist concluded McCoy was competent to understand the proceedings against him and to assist in his defense, (30) he originally proceeded with the assistance of an appointed public defender. (31) McCoy later fired the public defender and represented himself pro se until his parents hired attorney Larry English to represent him on March 1, 2010. (32) Although English had previous criminal defense experience, he had never represented a client facing the death penalty and was not certified to try death penalty cases. (33) The court made sure McCoy understood his attorney was not certified to try death penalty cases and obtained McCoy's consent before letting English commence representation. (34) English successfully petitioned the court to delay the trial for a year in order to give him more time to find assistance (from the same public defender's office that McCoy had previously fired) to present McCoy's defense. (35)

    Throughout the case, McCoy's defense was that the court, prosecutors, police officers, and English were all part of an elaborate scheme to frame him for the triple homicide and cover up an intricate drug-running ring in which they were all co-conspirators. (36) He had no evidence for any of these theories, and a clinical psychologist testified that McCoy "is one of those people that can lie to themselves so extensively and for such a long period of time that they ultimately end up believing what the lie is." (37)

    In preparation for trial, English advised McCoy to plead guilty in hopes of obtaining a lesser conviction and avoiding a death sentence. (38) However, it was not until two weeks before trial that English definitively told McCoy that he intended to confess McCoy's guilt to the jury even though McCoy wanted to plead innocent to the charged crimes. (39) Two days before the trial was scheduled to commence, English told the court he had just learned that McCoy wanted to fire him as his counsel. (40) McCoy claimed his parents had retained two new attorneys to take over his representation, although the new attorneys were not at the hearing and McCoy did not even know their names. (41) With the trial only two days away - having now been over three years since the murders took place - the trial judge refused to let English withdraw and ordered him to continue representing McCoy at trial. (42)

    English followed through with the planned guilty plea even though it was against McCoy's wishes. (43) He admitted McCoy's guilt in his opening statement, saying, "I'm telling you Mr. McCoy committed these crimes, [but he suffers from] serious emotional issues [that impair his ability] to function in society and to make rational decisions." (44) English asked the jury to consider the case as a second-degree murder trial in hopes of saving McCoy from the death penalty charge that might accompany a first-degree murder conviction. (45) Against English's advice and wishes, McCoy insisted on testifying in his own defense and presented his elaborate alibi defense at trial. (46) The jury returned a unanimous verdict finding McCoy guilty as charged on all three counts of firstdegree murder, and, at the penalty phase, sentenced him to death after hearing victim impact statements from McCoy's ex-wife, Yolanda, other friends and relatives of the deceased, and a mitigation plea from the clinical psychologist who previously conducted McCoy's sanity commission. (47)

    Four months after being sentenced to death, attorneys from the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center filed a motion for a new trial on behalf of McCoy. (48) McCoy's appellate attorneys also filed several motions for a new trial and appealed the death sentence conviction based on sixteen alleged assignments of error. (49) The main thrust of the appellate argument was that McCoy was irreparably wronged when English admitted his...

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