WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court rarely gives criminal defendants a second chance if they miss a deadline to file an appeal, but the justices did so Wednesday in the case of an Alabama death row inmate, citing a “perfect storm” of missing lawyers and unopened letters.
Cory Maples, convicted of killing two people in Alabama, was “abandoned” by his lawyers and lost his right to appeal because of “extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.
Alabama is one of the few states that do not pay for lawyers to represent death row inmates in their appeals, Ginsburg noted. Private law firms often take on their work as volunteers. Maples may have thought he was quite lucky when two attorneys from the prestigious New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell agreed to represent him in his appeals.
But it did not turn out as he expected. The two New York attorneys filed an initial claim, asserting that Maples’ trial lawyer failed him by not arguing that he was intoxicated when he shot and killed two friends after a night of heavy drinking.
But 18 months later, when an Alabama judge rejected his initial appeal, the two New York lawyers had left their firm to take other jobs. They did not notify Maples, the judge or a local attorney who was listed on the appeals.
When copies of the judge’s order were sent to the New York firm, they were returned by the mailroom unopened. As a result, the 42-day deadline for Maples to appeal this ruling passed by.
Alabama prosecutors then insisted it was too late for Maples to appeal because he had “defaulted” by missing the deadline. The Alabama Supreme Court and the U.S. Appeals Court in Atlanta agreed, saying Maples lost his chance to appeal because of his lawyers’ mistakes.
In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court ruled for Maples and said he deserves a right to appeal his conviction. Maples “has shown ample cause, we hold, to excuse the procedural default into which he was trapped when counsel of record abandoned him without a word of warning,” Ginsburg said.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said a “veritable perfect storm of misfortune, a most unlikely combination of events” had come together to unfairly deprive Maples of a chance to appeal.
The ruling does not free Maples from death row, but it will give him a new chance to argue on appeal that he would not have been sentenced to death had his trial lawyers told the jury he was intoxicated at the time of the crime. His jury voted 10 to 2 in favor of a death sentence.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying they wanted to maintain the “principle that defendants are responsible for the mistakes of their attorneys.”