US Supreme Court sides with Alabama death row inmate: lawyer’s missed mail should not prevent client from raising challenges

Today, by a 7-2 vote, the United States Supreme Court sided with a man on Alabama’s death row. The Supreme Court overturned a decision where the Eleventh Circuit held that a death-row inmate should lose his ability to challenge his conviction just because the mail containing an order never got to the out-of-state attorneys then representing him. The case is Maples v. Thomas.

Cory Maples was convicted and sentenced to death in 1997 when represented by two attorneys who operated within Alabama’s then-$1,000 limit to pay lawyers for out-of-court preparation prior to a death penalty trial. After the conviction, no local attorneys were assigned to handle his post-conviction challenges to his sentence. As has become common, a big law firm (New York’s Sullivan & Cromwell) assigned two associates to work on the post-conviction portion of Mr. Maples’ case. These young lawyers enlisted an Alabama lawyer to act as local counsel, as required by local rules and custom. The Sullivan & Cromwell attorneys began formulating an attack as to whether trial counsel were constitutionally effective when representing Maples at the sentencing phase of the trial.

In 2003 the judge handling the post-conviction aspect issued a ruling denying the claims raised by the Sullivan & Cromwell attorneys. Unfortunately, these lawyers had by then moved on to greener pastures, one taking a clerkship with a federal judge, the other getting a position in Europe. The Sullivan & Cromwell mailroom returned the letters as being “undeliverable.” The clerk never bothered to check with Sullivan & Cromwell, or contact the personal addresses or phone numbers that the young attorneys had listed when applying for permission to practice in Alabama. The local attorney likewise did nothing.

The time for appealing from the judge’s order passed. Someone at Sullivan & Cromwell figured out the problem, and petitioned for permission to file a tardy appeal of that order. From that point forward, Alabama prosecutors successfully argued that Mr. Maples was therefore forever barred from raising his claims. All of the Alabama courts agreed with the prosecutors, as did the U.S. District Judge to whom the matter was assigned.

On appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, Maples made persuasive arguments showing that he did not have an “adequate” method for challenging the failure to let him litigate his claims. More importantly, he demonstrated that the interests of justice demanded that a death sentence should not turn on the performance of mail room employees or clerks, and he should not be prevented from challenging his sentence just because changes of address prevented his lawyers from receiving a court order. As seems to be standard practice in the Eleventh Circuit, that court gleefully denied his claims, pointing to the raft of prosecution-oriented decisions saying that clients can sometimes suffer because of their lawyer’s missteps. The majority in the Eleventh Circuit did not seem to care that a man’s life was in the balance. Fortunately, Judge Rosemary Barkett on the Eleventh Circuit did care. She penned a strenuous dissent, and her arguments were echoed in the Supreme Court ruling issued today.

In technical terms, today’s decision holds that these facts were sufficient “cause” so as to excuse his “procedural default” in not filing a timely challenge to the 2003 order denying relief. But in a broader sense, this ruling stands for the proposition that at least seven justices were able to see the forest for the trees, and would not let a petty and cramped view of justice prevail. Bravo!

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