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Can your lawyer say you're guilty if you insist you're innocent?

Louisiana death penalty defendant Robert McCoy insists on his innocence in the crime of murdering his mother-in-law, her husband and her 17-year-old grandson. However, there is substantial evidence against him, including claims that the victim's cellphone and the gun used to commit the crime were found in a car McCoy was riding in. There was an incriminating 911 recording, too, and other evidence.

McCoy says all the evidence is a sham. He's being set up, he says, because he knew the police were running a drug trafficking ring. His public defender didn't believe him, so McCoy had him removed and was planning to represent himself. Then, a family friend and defense lawyer agreed to take on the case.

He tried to talk McCoy into admitting he had committed the murders. It was the only way to avoid the death penalty, he said. McCoy and his parents tried to have the new lawyer removed from the case but were unsuccessful.

Over his client's desperate objections, the lawyer did what he thought was right. He tried to save his client's life. He argued that McCoy had killed the three people but that he had been in a fragile mental state and lacked intent. He thought he could convince the jury to vote for life imprisonment. The jury chose the death penalty.

The U.S. Supreme Court is about to decide if McCoy's trial lawyer had the legal right to concede McCoy was guilty despite McCoy's insistence that he is not. It heard oral arguments this week.

McCoy's appellate lawyer argued that the issue is straightforward.

"If the defendant says I did not do X, I did not kill my parents, my family members," he said, "defense counsel may not affirmatively tell the jury that he did and ask that he be required to spend the rest of his life in prison."

Justice Neil Gorsuch characterized the situation as "a total denial of assistance of counsel" that should require a new trial.

The State of Louisiana disagrees. In some death penalty cases, it argued, it's in the defendant's best interest to allow an attorney to override the defendant's insistence on innocence. In this case, the state argued, the defendant's preferred strategy was "a futile charade."

For Justice Samuel Alito, that raises the issue of whether the defendant was even competent to stand trial at all.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was even more direct. "People can walk themselves into jail. They can walk themselves, regrettably, into the gas chamber," she said. "But they have a right to tell their story."

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the case by late June.

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