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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules for Death-Row Inmate Whose BigLaw Lawyers Missed the Appeal Deadline

Posted Jan 18, 2012 11:05 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Alabama death-row inmate Cory Maples isn't barred from appealing his conviction because of a blown appeals deadline caused by the departure of his BigLaw pro bono lawyers.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled 7-2 for Maples, finding there is cause to excuse the procedural default. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion (PDF). A concurring opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. noted Maples had experienced "a veritable perfect storm of misfortune."

Maples had been represented after his conviction by two pro bono associates with Sullivan & Cromwell in New York and local counsel who said at the outset he would not be doing any substantive work on the case. When the associates left Sullivan & Cromwell, they never notified Maples and didn’t seek leave to withdraw. A ruling denying postconviction relief addressed to the lawyers and sent to the law firm was returned to sender. As a result, no appeal was filed within the deadline.

“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,” Ginsburg wrote. “In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default at Maples’ death-cell door.”

Ginsburg’s opinion notes a report by the American Bar Association finding that Alabama underpays appointed capital counsel and sets low eligibility requirements, requiring only five years of experience in criminal cases. “Nearly alone among the states, Alabama does not guarantee representation to indigent capital defendants in postconviction proceedings,” Ginsburg wrote.

When Maples was tried in 1997, neither of his lawyers had previously tried the penalty phase of a capital case. Compensation for each lawyer was capped at $1,000 for time spent out-of-court preparing the case, and at $40 per hour for in-court services. According to Ginsburg, the Sullivan & Cromwell associates who filed a petition for postconviction relief alleged that Maple’s "inexperienced and underfunded attorneys 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.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. concurred in a decision noting the “unique circumstances” of the case. He said, however, he did not think Alabama’s capital punishment system had anything to do with Maples’ predicament. “What occurred here was not a predictable consequence of the Alabama system but a veritable perfect storm of misfortune, a most unlikely combination of events that, without notice, effectively deprived petitioner of legal representation,” he wrote.

Justice Antonin Scalia filed a dissent joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Justices Sympathetic to Inmate Whose BigLaw Counsel Didn’t Open Mail, Missed Capital Appeal Deadline"

ABAJournal.com: "Represented by Top BigLaw Counsel, Inmate Facing Death Sentence Hopes to Be Allowed to Appeal"

ABAJournal.com: Supreme Court to Decide if Sullivan & Cromwell’s Mailroom Mix-Up Bars Capital Appeal

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