WASHINGTON — An Alabama death row inmate deserves a new court hearing because his lawyers at a top-flight New York firm abandoned him, the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a case one justice called “a veritable perfect storm of misfortune.”
The court voted 7-2 to reverse a federal appeals court ruling that cut off appeals for Cory Maples, who was convicted of killing two men execution-style in 1995. Maples missed a deadline to appeal when court notices to his lawyers at the Sullivan and Cromwell firm were returned unopened and a local court clerk took no further action. The lawyers at the prominent New York firm had been representing Maples without charge.
Deadlines usually are sacrosanct at the high court, where defendants also typically are held responsible for the mistakes of their lawyers.
But Maples’ case is different because he is facing execution and his lawyers didn’t simply err, they abandoned him, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in her majority opinion.
“Through no fault of his own, Maples, an inmate on death row, was left unrepresented at a critical time,” Ginsburg said in an opinion that also criticized Alabama for using inexperienced lawyers and paying them poorly to represent defendants in death penalty cases.
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
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.
The quality of Maples’ representation was an issue from the start of his case. A jury convicted him of killing two men in Morgan County in northern Alabama and sentenced him to death by a 10-2 vote. One of Maples’ lawyers told jurors the defense team “may appear to be stumbling around in the dark.”
His legal case appeared to brighten, however, when the Sullivan and Cromwell lawyers agreed to represent him for free in his appeals. The New York-based firm has 800 lawyers and offices in a dozen cities.
From December 2001 until May 2003 not much happened in the case. But then an Alabama court rejected claims that had been prepared and filed on Maples’ behalf by the firm’s lawyers. The court sent a notice to the lawyers, as well as a local attorney in Alabama, starting a 42-day clock for appealing the order.
What neither the court nor Maples knew was that during the previous summer both lawyers had left Sullivan and Cromwell, one for a job in Europe and the other to clerk for a federal judge. “The attorneys Maples thought were vigilantly representing him had abandoned the case. They did not inform Maples or the Alabama court of this reality,” Ginsburg said.
The notices sent to the firm were not passed to other lawyers but were returned to Alabama. The local lawyer did nothing, thinking the New Yorkers were on the case. The court clerk likewise did nothing when the notices came back indicating the lawyers were no longer at the firm, even though the lawyers’ personal telephone numbers and home addresses were in the court’s file on Maples.
Only after the deadline passed did Maples find out what had happened. Other lawyers at Sullivan and Cromwell tried to continue the appeal, but both state and federal courts ruled that Maples was out of luck.
Wednesday’s decision leaves Maples on death row with his conviction and sentence in place. But it means a court will hear his 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.
The case is Maples v. Thomas, 10-63.