Larry English left the Louisiana courtroom knowing that he had tried his last criminal case.
His attempt to save his client’s life had failed. Over repeated objections from his client, Robert McCoy, who insisted on his innocence, Mr. English had told the jury that Mr. McCoy was “crazy” and had killed three people. The jury’s verdict was death.
“I walked out of that courtroom saying I could never put myself through that again, emotionally,” Mr. English said during a recent interview in his Harlem office. “I went into a deep depression. My wife was urging me to see someone. That had never happened before in my legal career.”
On Wednesday, Mr. English will revisit that trial in Washington, where he will watch lawyers argue McCoy v. Louisiana before the United States Supreme Court. The question before the court, which will decide if Mr. McCoy should get a new trial, is whether it is unconstitutional for a lawyer to concede a client’s guilt against the client’s wishes.
“When you’re in a courtroom fighting for someone’s life, you bring every skill and trick of the trade to save that person’s life,” Mr. English said. “A death penalty case is not normal.”
That much was clear from the start.
Mr. English was hired in 2010, after Mr. McCoy had fired his public defenders and was seeking to represent himself. He had been charged with killing his mother-in-law, Christine Colston Young; her husband, Willie Ray Young; and her grandson Gregory Lee Colston, 17.
“Anybody representing themselves in a death penalty case is guaranteeing a death sentence,” Mr. English said. “I knew Robert and I knew his family, and he needed my help.”
About a month before the trial, Mr. English told Mr. McCoy that the case was unwinnable because of the evidence the prosecution had against him, including that when Mr. McCoy was discovered, the gun used in the killings was under a seat of the vehicle he was traveling in.
Also, in a 911 recording, Ms. Colston Young could be heard telling “Robert” that her daughter was with the police, before a gunshot rang out and the call ended. A car registered to Mr. McCoy and his estranged wife was spotted leaving the scene by the police, and the phone Ms. Colston Young had used to call the police was found in the vehicle.
Mr. English urged Mr. McCoy to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison. Mr. McCoy maintained his innocence, saying that he wanted to mount a defense that he was out of town at the time of the murders and was framed by the police because he knew they were running a drug trafficking ring. Mr. English said it was Mr. McCoy’s delusions of a grand conspiracy that made his client unable to participate in his defense and that led him to believe he had no choice but to try to save his client’s life.
Two weeks before the trial, Mr. English told Mr. McCoy that he was going to admit that Mr. McCoy was guilty because maintaining credibility with the jury was the best chance to keep him alive.
Mr. McCoy furiously objected and tried to have Mr. English removed from the case. Mr. McCoy’s parents wrote to the judge also seeking Mr. English’s removal.
Bridgett Brown, 57, a lawyer in Alexandria, La., has been friends with Mr. English for nearly two decades. She has had three capital punishment cases that ended in plea deals and consulted with Mr. English almost daily before and during Mr. McCoy’s trial.
“Larry kept saying to me that he didn’t want this boy to die on his watch,” Ms. Brown said. “He felt the jury had death in their eyes.”
During opening statements, Mr. English followed through with his plan. “I’m telling you, Mr. McCoy committed these crimes,” Mr. English told the jury, according to court records. Mr. McCoy immediately objected, saying, “Mr. English is simply selling me out” and disregarding “all aspects” of his due process.
Ms. Brown said that Mr. English “had a job nobody wanted.”
“The only people who wanted Robert McCoy alive in that courtroom was his momma and Larry,” she added.
But Mr. English saw saving Mr. McCoy’s life as part of a larger struggle against injustice.
“The criminal justice system in this country is so racked by racism and classism that there is no way the death penalty can be implemented in a way that’s constitutional,” Mr. English said.
Mr. English, who is 62, grew up poor with six siblings on a sharecropper’s farm in rural Louisiana. He said he had “a better chance of being the starting point guard for the New York Knickerbockers than graduating from Tulane Law School.”
In Louisiana, he served as the president of an N.A.A.C.P. chapter and a local school board.
He was moving to Harlem when he took Mr. McCoy’s case, which he described as the “closing of a chapter” on his life in Louisiana.
In Harlem, Mr. English, who no longer practices law, is the chairman of a firm that deals in real estate infrastructure development. As the chairman of Community Board 9 in Harlem, he fought for minority businesses to get more city contracts. Yellowed articles on his office wall show him during a sit-in.
Mr. English displays a copy of a 2004 article that says he was able to get quadruple homicide charges dropped against a 24-year-old Walmart clerk, even though he had confessed.
“I’m confident I kept five innocent people from spending the rest of their lives in jail,” Mr. English said.
When he was asked to recall those cases, a sly smile spread over his face. He said he loved the “gunslinger” aspect of being a criminal lawyer. But then there was the dark, more depressing side of the job.
“Being a criminal lawyer in the American justice system is like doing triage for black men,” Mr. English said. “By the time they get to you, you’re dealing with the effects of absent fathers and poverty. They are 19 years old and about to go to jail for 20 years. All these lives are coming in, and you are doing everything you can to save them. It was my way of fighting the system.”
Phillip Collier, 62, has been best friends with Mr. English since they were in seventh grade at Lanier Jr.-Sr. High School in Shreveport, La.
Mr. Collier remembered being the new student in school when a teacher instructed Mr. English to escort him to his next class. To Mr. Collier’s surprise, Mr. English showed up at the end of that class and walked him to his next class, and his next class, and the class after that, until the day had ended.
“As a kid, Larry was looking out for his community, even though I was a total stranger,” Mr. Collier, a retired Ford Motor Company executive, said in a phone interview from his home in El Dorado Hills, Calif.
The two enrolled in the Army together after graduating from high school to escape what they were sure was a bleak future in Louisiana.
“I would have been surprised had he chose anything else other than criminal law,” Mr. Collier said. “Most of the people we knew, friends and families, had experienced injustices with the legal system that he wanted to do something about.”
It is not unusual for lawyers to admit their client’s guilt, especially in death penalty cases. Usually, the strategy is carried out with the cooperation of the accused. To go against a client’s wishes, however, violates the role lawyers are supposed to play in the legal system, said Lawrence J. Fox, a lecturer at Yale Law School.
“This is one of the most difficult questions that we’ve identified in being a lawyer,” said Mr. Fox, who filed a brief with several colleagues from the Ethics Bureau at Yale on Mr. McCoy’s behalf. “You start with the fundamental proposition that we are our client’s servants.”
As long as the client is not asking the lawyer to do anything illegal, and unless the client has been declared incompetent, the lawyer has to take instruction from the client regarding the admission of guilt, he added.
“It means some clients on death row may be committing suicide, but that’s their choice to make,” Mr. Fox said.
The Louisiana Supreme Court has allowed lawyers to concede their client’s guilt over their client’s objections at least four times since 2000, according to a brief supporting Mr. McCoy filed by the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Promise of Justice Initiative.
“We are looking for guidance. This area of the law is ripe with ambiguity and mistakes,” Mr. Fox said.
Mr. McCoy has been fighting for a new trial since he was sentenced to death in 2012. He appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, saying that he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to assistance of counsel, but the court ruled against him.
Mr. English fell silent when asked if he regretted taking the case.
Then he said, “The greatest thing I ever did as a lawyer, and the most important thing I ever did as a lawyer, was to take Robert McCoy’s case.”
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