The Supreme Court. ruling in Maples v. Thomas is available in Adobe .pdf format.
"New hearing for death row inmate in mail mix-up" by Mark Sherman for AP.
The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a new hearing for an Alabama death row inmate who missed a deadline to appeal when court notices to his lawyers at a big firm in New York were returned unopened.
The court voted 7-2 Wednesday to reverse a federal appeals court ruling that cut off appeals for Cory Maples.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her opinion for the court that Maples had been abandoned by his lawyers at the Sullivan and Cromwell firm when they left for new jobs and neglected to tell the local court or their client.
"Through no fault of his own, Maples, an inmate on death row, was left unrepresented at a critical time," Ginsburg said.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Scalia said the court should have stuck with its usual practice of holding defendants responsible for their lawyers' mistakes. "One suspects that today's decision is motivated in large part by an understandable sense of frustration" with Alabama's refusal to waive its deadlines in this case, Scalia said in an opinion joined by Thomas.
But Justice Samuel Alito, who often votes against criminal defendants, said in a separate opinion that Maples' circumstances were unique. "What occurred here was not a predictable consequence of the Alabama system, but a veritable perfect storm of misfortune," Alito said
Wednesday's decision means a court will hear Maples' claims that his inexperienced, poorly paid trial lawyers did such a bad job on his behalf that their work violated the Constitution's guarantee of representation for criminal defendants.
"Alabama Inmate Must Be Given Second Chance After Mailroom Mix-Up, Justices Rule," is Adam Liptak's New York Times report.
“Maples was disarmed by extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.
In a concurrence, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. described what had happened to Mr. Maples as “a veritable perfect storm of misfortune,” starting with the oddity that much of it was attributable to lawyers from “one of the country’s most prestigious and expensive” law firms.
“I have little doubt that the vast majority of criminal defendants would think that they had won the lottery if they were given the opportunity to be represented by attorneys from such a firm,” he added.
Yet two lawyers from Sullivan & Cromwell failed to inform Mr. Maples when they left the firm. Nor did they tell the court from which they were awaiting a ruling in his case. When two copies of that ruling were sent to the firm, it returned them unopened.
Justice Ginsburg’s opinion included a critique of Alabama’s capital justice system. At the time of Mr. Maples’s trial, court-appointed lawyers in capital cases were paid $40 an hour for time in court and $20 an hour otherwise, with a $1,000 cap on out-of-court work.
Mr. Maples was convicted of murdering two companions after a night of drinking. “His inexperienced and underfunded attorneys,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “failed to develop and raise an obvious intoxication defense, did not object to several egregious instances of prosecutorial misconduct and woefully underprepared for the penalty phase of his trial.”
At one point the lawyers apologized to the jury, saying that they “may appear to be stumbling around in the dark.” Even so, the jury’s vote recommending the death penalty was 10 to 2, the minimum required under Alabama law.
Justice Ginsburg was also critical of how Alabama handles challenges to convictions. Alabama is nearly alone among the states, she wrote, in that it “does not guarantee representation to indigent capital defendants in post-conviction proceedings.” Instead, the state relies on volunteer lawyers from public interest law firms and from the pro bono practices of major firms like Sullivan & Cromwell.
"U.S. Supreme Court Sides With Death-Row Inmate on Law Firm Mailroom Error," by Greg Stohr for Bloomberg News.
The U.S. Supreme Court revived an appeal from an Alabama death-row inmate who missed a legal filing deadline because of a mailroom error at the law firm that was representing him.
The justices, voting 7-2 today to reverse a lower court, said Cory R. Maples was entitled to another chance to challenge his death sentence for killing two friends in 1995.
“Maples was disarmed by extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.
The ruling is a victory for criminal defendants at a court that in other cases has been reluctant to excuse missed deadlines. In 2007, the justices threw out an appeal by a convicted murderer who missed a filing deadline because of a judge’s error.
Maples had been represented without charge by two lawyers at New York’s Sullivan & Cromwell LLP in his 2001 bid to overturn his conviction. By the time an Alabama judge ruled against Maples in 2003, both lawyers had left the firm.
When the clerk’s office for the Alabama court mailed the judge’s order to the two lawyers, both envelopes were returned. One was stamped, “Returned to Sender -- Attempted, Unknown,” and the other had a similar stamp along with “Return to Sender -- Left Firm” written by hand.
The clerk’s office didn’t take any additional steps to contact the lawyers, and Maples himself didn’t learn about the order until a month after the appeal deadline had passed.
“Had counsel of record or the state’s attorney informed Maples of his plight before the time to appeal ran out, he could have filed a notice of appeal himself or enlisted the aid of new volunteer attorneys,” Ginsburg wrote.
"U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of Alabama Death Row inmate Cory Maples," is by Mary Orndorff at the Birmingham News.
The case is now sent back for further proceedings. Maples wants a federal court to consider whether errors during his 1995 trial and sentencing might have kept the jury from voting 10-2 for the death penalty. Maples was convicted in the 1995 shooting deaths of two acquaintances as they sat in a car in his driveway late at night after he had been drinking.
Earlier coverage of Maples v. Thomas begins at the link.