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The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case where a defense lawyer refused to follow the instructions of his client, who contended he was innocent. Liam James Doyle/NPR hide caption

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Liam James Doyle/NPR

On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in a case with a surprise plot twist: The jurors were told that the accused was guilty of a triple murder — not by the prosecutor, but by the defense lawyer.

“There is no way reasonably possible that you can listen to the evidence and not come” to that conclusion, he said.

In an effort to avoid the death penalty, the defense lawyer refused to follow the instructions of his client, who contended he was innocent. The question before the justices is whether that violated the client’s constitutional right to counsel.

In 2008 Robert McCoy’s wife, Yolanda, took her infant daughter and fled Bossier, La., after her husband held her at knife point and threatened to kill her. She left her 17-year-old son with her parents in Bossier so he could finish high school and graduate, and went into protective custody in Dallas.

A month later McCoy was arrested and charged with killing his wife’s parents and her son. A 911 tape recorded Yolanda’s mother screaming “She ain’t here Robert. … I don’t know where she is. … The detectives have her.” A gunshot is heard, and then the line goes dead.

Although the evidence against him was overwhelming, McCoy has proclaimed his innocence, alleging that the killings were the product of a drug deal gone bad and that police conspired to frame him because he supposedly revealed their involvement in drug trafficking. Five months later, state psychiatric experts found McCoy mentally competent to stand trial.

But he was continually at odds with his public defenders, eventually firing them for refusing to file subpoenas he prepared for a dozen witnesses, who he said could support his alibi defense and other claims. He briefly acted as his own lawyer until his parents hired Larry English to defend him, and even then the defendant continued to file motions in his own defense.

English repeatedly advised McCoy to plead guilty in exchange for life in prison instead of the death penalty, or to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, but McCoy repeatedly refused, insisting that he was innocent.

Finally, English embarked on a strategy of conceding his client’s guilt, in hopes of avoiding the death penalty. Indeed, in his closing argument, he told the jury that not only was his client guilty but that he had taken any burden for this conclusion off of the prosecutor and the jury.

Directly contradicting his client’s instructions, he suggested that McCoy suffered from diminished mental capacity, and should therefore only be convicted of second-degree murder. But as the prosecutor would soon explain to the jury, that defense was legally unavailable to McCoy because Louisiana only allows a diminished capacity argument if the defendant has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. It was one of many mistakes English appears to have made during the trial.

Throughout the trial, McCoy kept interrupting his lawyer’s concessions of guilt, even trying to fire him. In 2012 the jury ultimately sentenced McCoy to death, and the question Wednesday is whether he was denied assistance of counsel.

On one side is McCoy’s new lawyer, who will tell the court that when a criminal defendant refused to plead guilty and instead insists on requiring the state to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, the lawyer is not free to disregard that decision. The Constitution guarantees the right to counsel, and McCoy essentially argues that the Constitution doesn’t condition that right on agreeing to the major decisions your lawyer urges.

On the other side, the state of Louisiana argues that when a lawyer and his client have irreconcilable differences, the client has a choice — represent himself, or cede the strategy for the trial to his lawyer. Because McCoy did not try to fire his lawyer until just days before the trial, the state contends, he had let the lawyer dictate legal strategy.

But Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having said, “He who represents himself has a fool as a client.” More to the point, people who represent themselves in major criminal trials, often have enormous mental health problems and imperception of reality.

Ten leading legal ethics experts have filed a brief in the case on behalf of defendant McCoy. They argue that the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision upholding McCoy’s conviction and death sentence violates the Constitution, the common law that long has made lawyers the agents of their clients, and the canons of professional ethics adopted by Louisiana and 48 other states.

Lawrence Fox, a Yale Law School ethics lecturer, says these cases occur more often than you might expect — especially in capital cases, where defendants only rarely are found incompetent to stand trial.

“This is a very difficult issue,” he says. “Obviously most of us would think that the lawyer should just do what’s in the best interest of the client in the view of the lawyer.”

But, Fox says, the Constitution and the legal profession have drawn the line differently: “The client gets to decide because the client is the person who is going to suffer whatever the result is, and we can imagine many situations where the lawyer could be overbearing” — so overbearing that his will trumps his client’s ability to be master of his own fate.

A decision in the case is expected by summer.