Reacting to a Wednesday Supreme Court ruling that restored an Alabama death-row inmates right to appeal his sentence, LDF director John Payton told the Huffington Post that the decision “focuses attention on the larger issue that death should not be the consequence of someone having an inadequate lawyer.”
The High Court ordered that Cory R. Maples be allowed to appeal his death sentence, despite having missed a critical deadline for filing the appeal, because of an inadvertent series of mix-ups among his attorneys.
The Court, by a 7-to-2 vote, ruled that Maples was victimized by, as Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “a veritable perfect storm of misfortune, a most unlikely combination of events.”
Maples’ in 2001 had secured for his appeal the pro bono representation of two attorneys from the elite New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell. Those two attorneys left Sullivan & Cromwell, however, before the trial court had ruled on his appeal. When the court denied his petition, it sent the notice to Sullivan & Cromwell, unaware that each of the attorneys had left for another firm. The court mailing was returned unopened to the trail court clerk’s office, where it languished.
Nor was the Alabama attorney named in court papers as Maples’ in-state counsel any help. Although the Sullivan & Cromwell attorneys had associated themselves with him in order to practice in Alabama, he had told them at the outset Butler he would make no substantive contribution to the case – a position that was actually in violation of the state’s requirement.
That chain of circumstances persuaded the Supreme Court to reverse lower court rulings that upheld the longstanding precedent that clients must bear the consequences of their lawyers’ mistakes and cannot cite them as grounds for new hearings. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, stated that “Maples was disarmed by extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control [which] excuse the procedural default into which he was trapped.”
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, warning that, despite the majority’s pronouncement, the decision would provoke similar appeals to the High Court.