Today's Birmingham News carries the editorial, "U.S. Supreme Court sends much-needed message to Alabama about how it treates poor defendants charged with capital crimes."
The U.S. Supreme Court sent the state of Alabama at least two messages last week when justices ruled against the state in the case of Death Row inmate Cory Maples, who missed a deadline to appeal after his lawyers dropped his case without telling him.
First, the high court made clear the state and courts were wrong in denying Maples his day in court. Maples missed a 42-day window to file an appeal after a state court judge ruled against his claims of ineffectiveness of counsel and other problems at trial. But the missed filing was through no fault of his own. Two pro bono lawyers had abandoned Maples' case without notifying him or the state. Copies of the trial court's order sent to them at their old law firm were returned unopened to the court clerk, who did nothing.
"Abandoned by counsel, Maples was left unrepresented at a critical time for his state postconviction petition, and he lacked a clue of any need to protect himself pro se," the court said in its 7-2 ruling. "In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default at Maples' death-cell door."
But Alabama's system did blame Maples. Which brings us to the court's second, and more important message: Our state's system of capital punishment is not a just system.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who delivered the opinion, made that clear in her criticism of how the state provides -- and in some cases doesn't provide -- lawyers for poor defendants charged with capital crimes.
Among the problems she cited: Alabama requires that a lawyer appointed to defend a death-penalty case only be a member of the state bar and have five years' experience practicing criminal law; no experience with capital cases is required; the state doesn't provide, or require, professional education or training in capital cases; appointed lawyers are underpaid; and Alabama is "nearly alone among the states" in not guaranteeing that poor Death Row inmates have legal representation in postconviction proceedings -- those state and federal appeals after the initial round of "direct" appeals.
The opinion in Maples v. Thomas is available in Adobe .pdf format. Earlier coverage of the Supreme Court ruling in the Alabama case begins at the link.
"Dothan man to be sentenced for third time in slayings," is the title of a report in the Dothan Eagle written by Matt Elofson.
Lawyers expect to select a jury Monday for the third time to sentence a Dothan man for the slaying of three people.
Attorney David Hogg said his client, 40-year-old Jerry Jerome Smith, had his first two sentences reversed.
The death sentence was reversed because of comments made by some of the relatives of victims in the murders during the jury selection of the trial.