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Supreme Court Issues Important Guidance on Client Autonomy in Criminal Cases

In McCoy v. Louisiana, the United States Supreme Court provided important guidance on which decisions in a case belong solely to the criminally accused, and which decisions are for the lawyer.  In McCoy, the defense attorney had admitted the client’s guilt in a capital murder case, despite the client’s protestations of innocence, in an effort to avoid the death penalty.  The client was subsequently convicted and given three death sentences.  On review, the Supreme Court determined that the lawyer’s actions did not constitute ineffective assistance of counsel, but that they did violate the client’s autonomy.

The primary takeaway from the court’s opinion is that the client, not the lawyer, gets to decide the objectives of representation.  The lawyer has the right to decide the best strategy to obtain those objectives, because trial management is the lawyer’s province. Counsel provides assistance to the accused by making decisions such as what objections to make, which witnesses to call, which arguments to pursue, and what agreements to conclude regarding the admission of evidence. See Gonzalez v. United States, 553 U.S. 242, 248-49 (2008).  The client gets to make the most important decisions, though, such as whether to plead guilty, assert innocence, waive the right to a jury trial, testify in his own behalf, or pursue an appeal.

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