Ethics Bureau Advocates for New Trial in Death Row Case


A death row inmate appealing his conviction will have his case reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court this year, a major development that comes after years of advocacy from the Ethics Bureau at Yale.

In April 2017, students filed an amicus brief with the High Court arguing that the defendant, Robert McCoy, had a right to a new trial due to ineffective counsel.

The appeal in McCoy v. Louisiana challenges the lower court ruling that denied McCoy’s claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. The central question in the case is whether it is unconstitutional for defense counsel to concede the guilt of the accused over their client’s objections.

In May 2008, McCoy was indicted by a Louisiana grand jury on three counts of murder. After the State of Louisiana notified McCoy of its intent to seek the death penalty against him on these charges, he entered a plea of not guilty and told his defense counsel of his wish to go to trial to prove his innocence, the clinic said. However, despite McCoy’s unequivocal instructions, his defense counsel proceeded to concede guilt at trial. McCoy was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death.

McCoy appealed his conviction and sentence to the Louisiana Supreme Court shortly after his conviction. The clinic filed an amicus brief with the lower court in support of McCoy at that time.

Following the lower court decision, McCoy filed a cert petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, which was granted in September 28, 2017.

“In our brief, the Ethics Bureau asserted that Mr. McCoy and other similarly situated defendants are denied the fundamental right to be the master of one’s own defense when defense counsel concedes guilt over their express objection,” explained Will Bekker ’18, a student who worked on the case.

“We look forward to continuing our assistance on this case and hope that Mr. McCoy ultimately has the chance to receive a fair trial.”

“One of the key professional responsibility issues is the extent of the lawyer obligation to permit the client to determine the objectives of the representation,” said Larry Fox, a Visiting Lecturer in Law at Yale Law School who leads the clinic. “This action reestablishes the principle.”

Recently, the Ethics Bureau was also instrumental in getting the Supreme Court to reverse a conviction in a separate capital murder case out of Louisana.

The Ethics Bureau advises lawyers on how to proceed when faced with violations of the Model Rules of Professional Conduct and other ethical dilemmas. Students draft amicus briefs in cases involving professional responsibility; help people with ineffective assistance of counsel claims; and offer ethics advice to nonprofit organizations. A weekly class on professional responsibility is also part of the bureau.