The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether a lawyer was wrong to concede a death row inmate’s guilt without his consent. The Associated Press reports that at arguments yesterday, many justices seemed unwilling to second-guess a trial strategy aimed at saving the man’s life. The court appeared ready to set aside a Florida Supreme Court decision to grant a new trial for Joe Elton Nixon. He was convicted in the 1984 murder of a woman he met at a mall.
At issue is the court-appointed attorney’s decision to admit at trial that Nixon was responsible for the victim’s “horrible, horrible death” in hopes that his candor would persuade the jury not to impose the death penalty. Asserting a “complete breakdown in the adversarial process,” attorney Edward Tillinghast contended Nixon was unfairly sentenced to death because his trial lawyer didn’t try to prove his innocence. Justice Antonin Scalia said that, “According to to the lower courts, (conceding guilt) was a good strategy.” The case hinges on two Supreme Court decisions handed down in 1984 amid misgivings among some justices that punishments were sometimes imposed arbitrarily due to poor attorney representation.