SCOTUS overturns death sentence for Bossier man, orders new trial

Louisiana AG, defense attorney react to SCOTUS overturning Robert McCoy's death sentence
Robert McCoy was sentenced to death in 2012 for murdering his estranged wife's family. (Source: Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office)
Robert McCoy was sentenced to death in 2012 for murdering his estranged wife's family. (Source: Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (KSLA) - The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that after spending six years on death row, a Bossier City man convicted of killing three people will get a new trial.

Robert McCoy was found guilty of first degree murder in 2011 for the deaths of his estranged wife's mother, stepfather, and son. In an attempt to avoid the death penalty, McCoy's defense attorney, Larry English, told the jury that his client was guilty at trial. McCoy, however, maintained his innocence and objected to this strategy.

Today, in a 6-3 decision, the U.S Supreme Court overturned a Louisiana Supreme Court ruling, saying that the circumstances of McCoy's trial were unconstitutional, violating his Sixth Amendment rights.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote the opinion which reads, in part:

The Sixth Amendment guarantees to each criminal defendant "the Assistance of Counsel for his defence." The choice is not all or nothing: To gain assistance, a defendant need not surrender control entirely to counsel.

Richard Bourke is the Director of the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center and represented McCoy:

"The ruling restores in Louisiana the constitutional right of every individual to present their defense to a jury. While rare in the rest of the country, what happened to Mr. McCoy was a part of Louisiana's broken criminal justice system that fails to respect individual human dignity.  Mr. McCoy's was one of ten death sentences imposed in Louisiana since 2000 that have been tainted with the same flaw.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry says he disagrees with today's decision:

"We are disappointed in today's ruling that grants a new trial in a case where overwhelming evidence of guilt is present and where the entire Supreme Court acknowledges the result is not likely to be different. The majority recognized a new, non-textual right that 'is like a rare plant that blooms every decade or so,' as observed by Justice Alito, and joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch dissenting.  In doing so, the majority makes a policy decision, not a constitutional one.

We were always concerned that the actual facts of this case would be eclipsed by fiction. Unfortunately, that's exactly what happened. The voices of the dissenting Justices, however, are clear, 'We (the Court) do not have the right to simplify or otherwise change the facts of the case in order to make our work easier or the achieve a desired result'.  Further dissenting, Justice Alito, observed,  '[t]he Court ignores the questions actually presented by the case before us and instead decided this case on the basis of a newly discovered constitutional right that is not implicated by what really occurred at petitioner's trial.'  I want to thank Solicitor General Murrill and her team, as well as District Attorney Schuyler Marvin and his team for their hard work in this case. Their efforts helped insure that the court made a decision that should be limited to this case and does not materially affect our criminal justice system."

The crime happened in 2008, when McCoy's estranged wife's mother, Christine Colston-Young, stepfather Willie Young, and her son Greg Colston were all shot in the head in their Bossier City home. Mike Halphen, who was the Bossier City Police Chief at the time, said that McCoy was angry with his estranged wife and just went into the home and started shooting. "You could see there had been a struggle, they had tried to get away," said Halphen.

Police were familiar with McCoy before the murders. He was wanted for allegedly attacking his wife with a knife a month before the shooting.

McCoy's arrest was nothing if not dramatic. He spent days on the run from police before being arrested in Idaho. Police there say McCoy tried to commit suicide in his jail cell. A month later he allegedly attempted suicide again, this time in a Bossier Parish jail cell. So far, police say McCoy has attempted suicide four times while in custody. McCoy denies this, saying that in each instance officers were physically assaulting him and trying to cover it up.

At his sentencing hearing, McCoy told the jury, "I'm no monster.  I'm no cold-blooded killer," saying he was framed by the Bossier City Police Department.

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