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State v. Clark

Supreme Court of Louisiana

June 27, 2019



          PER CURIAM. [*]

         After his second trial, appellant Jeffrey Clark was found guilty of the first degree murder of Captain David Knapps, which was committed on December 28, 1999, during a failed attempt to escape from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where appellant was serving a life sentence for first degree murder.[1]Appellant's first trial ended in a mistrial after opening statements in the guilt phase because the prosecution informed the jury that appellant was already serving a life sentence.[2] Following his second trial, appellant was found guilty of first degree murder and sentenced to death. Appellant's conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal.[3]

         The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to remand for further consideration in light of McCoy v. Louisiana, 584 U.S.__, 138 S.Ct. 1500, __L.Ed.2d__(2018).[4] With the benefit of additional briefing and oral argument, and after further consideration, we again affirm appellant's conviction and sentence for the reasons that follow, in addition to the reasons stated previously in State v. Clark, 12-0508 (La. 12/19/16), 220 So.3d 583.

         In McCoy v. Louisiana, 584 U.S.__, 138 S.Ct. 1500, __L.Ed.2d__(2018), the United States Supreme Court determined that the violation of the defendant's Sixth Amendment-secured autonomy was a structural error that is not subject to harmless-error review. Thus, the Supreme Court found that this court had erred in affirming McCoy's three first degree murder convictions and death sentences because the trial court did not permit McCoy to replace his retained counsel on the eve of trial, and McCoy's trial counsel conceded that McCoy murdered his victims despite the fact that McCoy "vociferously insisted that he did not engage in the charged acts and adamantly objected to any admission of guilt." Id., 138 S.Ct. at 1505. In determining that a structural error had occurred in McCoy, the Supreme Court explained:

The Sixth Amendment guarantees to each criminal defendant "the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." At common law, self-representation was the norm. See Faretta v. California, 422 U.S. 806, 823, 95 S.Ct. 2525, 45 L.Ed.2d 562 (1975) (citing 1 F. Pollock & F. Maitland, The History of English Law 211 (2d ed. 1909)). As the laws of England and the American Colonies developed, providing for a right to counsel in criminal cases, self-representation remained common and the right to proceed without counsel was recognized. Faretta, 422 U.S., at 824-828, 95 S.Ct. 2525. Even now, when most defendants choose to be represented by counsel, see, e.g., Goldschmidt & Stemen, Patterns and Trends in Federal Pro Se Defense, 1996-2011: An Exploratory Study, 8 Fed. Cts. L. Rev. 81, 91 (2015) (0.2% of federal felony defendants proceeded pro se ), an accused may insist upon representing herself-however counterproductive that course may be, see Faretta, 422 U.S., at 834, 95 S.Ct. 2525. As this Court explained, "[t]he right to defend is personal," and a defendant's choice in exercising that right "must be honored out of 'that respect for the individual which is the lifeblood of the law.'" Ibid. (quoting Illinois v. Allen, 397 U.S. 337, 350-351, 90 S.Ct. 1057, 25 L.Ed.2d 353 (1970) (Brennan, J., concurring)); see McKaskle v. Wiggins, 465 U.S. 168, 176-177, 104 S.Ct. 944, 79 L.Ed.2d 122 (1984) ("The right to appear pro se exists to affirm the dignity and autonomy of the accused.").
The choice is not all or nothing: To gain assistance, a defendant need not surrender control entirely to counsel. For the Sixth Amendment, in "grant[ing] to the accused personally the right to make his defense," "speaks of the 'assistance' of counsel, and an assistant, however expert, is still an assistant." Faretta, 422 U.S., at 819-820, 95 S.Ct. 2525; see Gannett Co. v. DePasquale, 443 U.S. 368, 382, n. 10, 99 S.Ct. 2898, 61 L.Ed.2d 608 (1979) (the Sixth Amendment "contemplat[es] a norm in which the accused, and not a lawyer, is master of his own defense"). Trial management is the lawyer's province: Counsel provides his or her assistance by making decisions such as "what arguments to pursue, what evidentiary objections to raise, and what agreements to conclude regarding the admission of evidence." Gonzalez v. U.S., 553 U.S. 242, 248, 128 S.Ct. 1765, 170 L.Ed.2d 616 (2008) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Some decisions, however, are reserved for the client-notably, whether to plead guilty, waive the right to a jury trial, testify in one's own behalf, and forgo an appeal. See Jones v. Barnes, 463 U.S. 745, 751, 103 S.Ct. 3308, 77 L.Ed.2d 987 (1983).
Autonomy to decide that the objective of the defense is to assert innocence belongs in this latter category. Just as a defendant may steadfastly refuse to plead guilty in the face of overwhelming evidence against her, or reject the assistance of legal counsel despite the defendant's own inexperience and lack of professional qualifications, so may she insist on maintaining her innocence at the guilt phase of a capital trial. These are not strategic choices about how best to achieve a client's objectives; they are choices about what the client's objectives in fact are. See Weaver v. Massachusetts, 582 U.S. __, __, 137 S.Ct. 1899, 1908, 198 L.Ed.2d 420 (2017) (self-representation will often increase the likelihood of an unfavorable outcome but "is based on the fundamental legal principle that a defendant must be allowed to make his own choices about the proper way to protect his own liberty"); Martinez v. Court of Appeal of Cal., Fourth Appellate Dist., 528 U.S. 152, 165, 120 S.Ct. 684, 145 L.Ed.2d 597 (2000) (Scalia, J., concurring in judgment) ("Our system of laws generally presumes that the criminal defendant, after being fully informed, knows his own best interests and does not need them dictated by the State.").

McCoy, 138 S.Ct. at 1507-1508 (emphasis in original).

         The Supreme Court in McCoy recognized that a capital defendant might not share in his counsel's objective of avoiding the death penalty; instead, an accused may prefer not to admit that he killed family members, as in McCoy's case, or may "hold life in prison not worth living and prefer to risk death for any hope, however small, of exoneration." Id., 138 S.Ct. at 1508 (citations omitted). Thus, "[w]hen a client expressly asserts that the objective of 'his defense' is to maintain innocence of the charged criminal acts, his lawyer must abide by that objective and may not override it by conceding guilt." Id., 138 S.Ct. at 1509 (emphasis in original) (citations omitted). Still, the Supreme Court observed, "Trial management is the lawyer's province: Counsel provides his or her assistance by making such decisions as 'what arguments to pursue, what evidentiary objections to raise, and what agreements to conclude regarding the admission of evidence.'" Id., 138 S.Ct. at 1508 (quoting Gonzalez v. United States, 553 U.S. 242, 248, 128 S.Ct. 1765, 1769, 170 L.Ed.2d 616 (2008)).

         The Supreme Court distinguished the situation presented in McCoy from those presented in Florida v. Nixon, 543 U.S. 175, 125 S.Ct. 551, 160 L.Ed.2d 565 (2004) and Nix v. Whiteside, 475 U.S. 157, 106 S.Ct. 988, 89 L.Ed.2d 123 (1986). In the former case, Nixon's autonomy was not overridden by his counsel because Nixon "was generally unresponsive" throughout discussions regarding trial strategy, during which counsel made clear the intention to concede guilt. McCoy, 138 S.Ct. at 1509 (citation omitted). In contrast, the Supreme Court observed that McCoy "opposed [counsel's] assertion of his guilt at every opportunity, before and after trial, both in conference with his lawyer and in open court." Ibid. Therefore, "[p]resented with express statements of the client's will to maintain innocence, however, counsel may not steer the ship the other way." Ibid. (citations omitted). With respect to the latter case, the Supreme Court found that the difference between McCoy and Nix was that Whiteside informed his counsel that he intended to commit perjury, and McCoy had not. Id., 138 S.Ct. at 1510 (observing that McCoy's counsel "harbored no doubt that McCoy believed what he was saying" with respect to his alibi). Instead, counsel's "express motivation for conceding guilt was not to avoid suborning perjury, but to try to build credibility with the jury, and thus obtain a sentence lesser than death." Ibid.

         Based on the foregoing, the Supreme Court found that "counsel may not admit her client's guilt of a charged crime over the client's intransigent objection to that admission." Ibid. In addressing the dissent and comparing this court's affirmance in McCoy to decisions in other jurisdictions, the Supreme Court observed:

[H]ere, the defendant repeatedly and adamantly insisted on maintaining his factual innocence despite counsel's preferred course: concession of the defendant's commission of criminal acts and pursuit of diminished capacity, mental illness, or lack of premeditation defenses. . . . These were not strategic disputes about whether to concede an element of a charged offense . . .; they were ...

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