One of the guarantees of the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is the right for an accused person to have an attorney, or counsel, in a trial with charges against him/her. If there is a deficient performance by that counsel, and the result of the trial may have been different had it not been for that specific performance, an accused person may appeal a conviction under the terms of ineffective assistance of counsel through the Sixth Amendment.
However, that deficient performance may not always mean a slam-dunk appeal. There are ways that a “disloyal” attorney may not necessarily prove to be an ineffective assistance of counsel according to Supreme Court precedent. For example, if it is found that a defendant was unresponsive to his or her counsel during the trial, they may be found to have no grounds for appeal, as was the case with Florida vs. Nixon.
Florida vs. Nixon
In each capital trial, there are two phases. The first phase is when a jury decides if a defendant is guilty or not. The second phase of the trial is when the punishment is decided. Sometimes attorneys may deploy strategies in the first part of the trial in order to have a better position during the second part of the trial if there is overwhelming evidence against a defendant, and he/she is likely to be found guilty.
In the case of the state of Florida against Nixon, where a man was accused of kidnapping and murdering a young woman, there was substantial evidence to support the guilt of the defendant. Therefore, his counsel decided on a strategy of admitting guilt in the first part of the trial in order to obtain a better position at the sentencing portion of the trial; attempting to gain trust of the jury through the first portion of the trial, with hopes that the jury would agree to leniency with regards to punishment. Nixon was convicted by the jury, which also recommended the death penalty.
Nixon elected to appeal the case based on ineffective assistance of counsel. However, because it was found that he was unresponsive as to whether his counsel should admit his guilt during the original trial, the Supreme Court denied his request for a retrial. The reason for this decision was the fact that an admission of guilt by counsel as a strategy for gaining leniency in sentencing is one that can be invoked if the defendant is informed of the strategy and does not explicitly disagree, which was the case in this situation.
A Defendant’s Reluctance to Admit Guilt
In a recent case in Louisiana, Robert McCoy was accused of a triple murder in 2008, and was sentenced to death after his lawyer admitted to the jury that he was guilty of the crime. McCoy’s counsel began the trial by admitting his client’s guilt in the opening statements, after which the defendant protested to the courtroom and maintained his innocence. When the jury later convicted McCoy and he was sentenced to the death penalty, he appealed to the Supreme Court of the state of Louisiana. He claimed that he did not consent to the strategy of proclaiming guilt in the first part of the trial in order to ask for leniency in the next. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the conviction using the precedent set by Florida vs. Nixon.
The defendant in this case claims that he explicitly rejected the strategy used by his attorney each step of the way, and that the Louisiana Supreme Court also misinterpreted another U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires defense attorneys to always challenge a state’s evidence against their client. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear McCoy vs. Louisiana in 2018.
If you feel as though your counsel was deficient in representing you, and the outcome of your trial would have been different if it were not for the actions of your counsel, it’s important that you seek the advice of a criminal defense attorney who has experience in ineffective assistance of counsel cases.
Barnes, R. (2017, October 08). Supreme Court ponders if lawyer can concede client’s guilt when accused claims innocence. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/supreme-court-ponders-if-lawyer-can-concede-clients-guilt-when-accused-claims-innocence/2017/10/08/593e06a4-a9fd-11e7-850e-2bdd1236be5d_story.html?utm_term=.01d51be5e7da
Liptak, A. (2017, October 09). Facing the Death Penalty With a Disloyal Lawyer. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/09/us/politics/death-penalty-supreme-court-attorney.html
Florida v. Nixon. (n.d.). Retrieved October 24, 2017, from https://www.casebriefs.com/blog/law/criminal-procedure/criminal-procedure-keyed-to-israel/the-role-of-counsel/florida-v-nixon/2/
Spatz, R. (2017, May 25). What may constitute an ineffective assistance of counsel? Retrieved October 24, 2017, from /blog/2017/05/what-may-constitute-an-ineffective-assistance-of-counsel.shtml