Monday, December 13, 2004

Supreme Court: Unauthorized Admission of Client's Guilt OK

In an interesting decision today, the Supreme Court ruled 8-0 that a Florida death row inmate was not entitled to a new trial - even though his attorney admitted his guilt during the trial (at the beginning of trial, actually) apparently without the client's consent. The best coverage I've found so far was at the AP, although I first came across it on the Jurist Paperchase website. The case is captioned Florida v. Nixon.

The facts are indeed gruesome- the defendant allegedly bound his victim to a tree with jumper cables and set her on fire. Defense counsel pleaded with the defendant to enter a plea bargain, knowing the jury would be outraged at the facts, but to no avail. So counsel decided the best trial strategy was to punt to admit his client's responsible for the "horrible, horrible death," and hope for a life prison term instead of the death penalty. It didn't work. The jury still gave the death penalty. Somewhat understandably, the defendant claimed ineffective assistance of counsel.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed with the defendant and ordered a new trial. The U.S. Supreme Court granted cert and reversed the state high court. The lawyer's strategy struck the Justices as "reasonable," and the defendant did not make his objection to the strategy clear he was unresponsive to his lawyer during the discussions. Justice Ginsburg wrote for a unanimous Court (Justice Rhenquist did not participate).

The case presents troubling questions of professional ethics - not only when a lawyer gamble with his trial presentation, but also what a lawyer is supposed to do when a client will not assert an opinion. It is also interesting that in a death penalty case, the Court came down unanimously on the side of the original sentence (capital punishment).

I don't disagree with the decision itself, and as a practitioner with Legal Aid there were occasionally clients who either could not or would not express any preference about how to pursue a case (of course, my cases were simpler than a capital murder case). Sometimes the clients were excessively deferential - they would simply nod and agree with anything I suggested, despite attempts to solicit input or expressions of preference. Other times clients were simply detached - very detached - from everything around them, leaving me to infer what they wanted from stares and silence. The Model Rules didn't tell me exactly how to handle these situations, unfortunately.

At the same time, the case may stand as a cautionary tale to other attorneys, because the bet-the-bank approach backfired and netted a death sentence instead of mercy. One could argue of course, that the defendant is no worse off than he'd be if the lawyer tried to argue his innocence in the face of overwhelming evidence - Nixon is awaiting the same fate now as Scott Peterson.