By: Rubin M. Sinins, Esq.
Recently the New York Times reported on a troubling case where a Criminal Defense Attorney, in an effort to save a capital defendant’s life, ignored the client’s instruction and admitted his guilt before the jury. Lawyers on both sides argued whether this was permissible. The short answer is: No.
Attorneys are ethically obligated to comply with legal instructions from the client on fundamental questions such as guilt or innocence. If the client asserts his innocence, an attorney cannot state that he is guilty. This is notwithstanding the client’s poor choices. Indeed, the attorney in the Times article was attempting to save his client from the death penalty by acknowledging responsibility of the murder. The lawyer may believe that denying guilt would ensure a death sentence. But that is the client’s decision. So long as he is not asking the lawyer to do anything illegal, and the client is competent, decisions as to admissions of guilt are in the hands of the client.
Attorneys often feel that they know best, and oftentimes they probably do. But when knowing best and abiding by a client’s lawful wishes diverge, the latter must control. Lawyers’ effectiveness and role in the justice system are served by following the client’s instructions.