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USA Today: Justices side with death row inmate abandoned by counsel

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled by a 7-2 vote Wednesday that an Alabama death row prisoner should not be prevented from appealing because he missed a deadline after his lawyers dropped his case and failed to tell him.

The two lawyers at the New York firm of Sullivan and Cromwell failed to alert Alabama court authorities, so that when a court clerk sent papers to the lawyers, the firm's mailroom returned them unopened marked, "Return to Sender — Left Firm" and "Returned to Sender — Attempted, Unknown."

"Abandoned by counsel, (Cory) Maples was left unrepresented at a critical time … and he lacked any clue of any need to protect himself," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority. "In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default (arising from a missed deadline) at Maples' death-cell door."

The justices reversed a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit against Maples, who was convicted and sentenced to die for the 1995 killings of two companions after a night of heavy drinking.

Only Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. They insisted that a state can enforce its deadlines and other procedures related to death penalty appeals even when lawyers are to blame.

The extraordinary case arising from botched work at a prominent law firm had drawn national interest. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund was among those supporting Maples. Twenty states, meanwhile, had joined Alabama in urging the court not to revive Maples' petition based on a claim of ineffective assistance at trial.

Read the full story here.