U.S. Supreme Court says paperwork mishap cannot block death row appeal
January 19, 2012
By Mary Orndorff
The Birmingham News
WASHINGTON -- A condemned Alabama prisoner will get another chance to challenge his death sentence after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that he is not to blame for a paperwork mishap that caused him to miss a filing deadline.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion that also harshly criticizes Alabama's overall capital defense system, said Cory Maples had no idea his attorneys had left the New York firm where they were representing him when a 42-day window for filing his next appeal came and went in 2003.
"Maples was disarmed by extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the opinion joined by six other justices.
The decision sends the case back to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which earlier denied Maples' argument that he was unknowingly abandoned by his appellate attorneys, costing him his chance to argue that his original defense attorneys at trial were ineffective.
"We're thrilled with the result and Cory looks forward to pressing forward with his claims," said Gregory Garre, a Washington lawyer who argued on Maples' behalf before the justices in the fall.
Maples was convicted by a Morgan County jury in the 1995 shooting deaths of two acquaintances as they sat in a car in his driveway late at night after he had been drinking, according to prosecutors. The jury voted 10-2 for the death penalty.
Two attorneys from a New York firm volunteered to handle Maples' appeals, but they both left the firm without notifying the court in Alabama that they were no longer on the case. Written notice of the filing deadline for Maples was sent to their old firm and returned unopened to the Alabama court clerk. Maples didn't find out about the missed deadline until someone from the Alabama Attorney General's Office wrote him a letter while he was on Death Row.
Justice Samuel Alito, in a separate opinion agreeing with the Supreme Court decision, said it was "a veritable perfect storm of misfortune, a most unlikely combination of events that, without notice, effectively deprived (Maples) of legal representation."
The Alabama Attorney General's Office had argued that Maples had other lawyers who should have stepped in when the two lead lawyers took jobs elsewhere, but the seven justices in the majority disagreed.
"We're obviously disappointed with the result but we respect the decision of the Supreme Court and we will look forward to continuing to defend Mr. Maples' conviction and sentence in the proceedings that are going to follow in lower court," said Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman Jr., who argued the state's case.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, agreed with the state of Alabama and said it was an "unjustified leap" that Maples was left unrepresented.
Ginsburg's opinion also includes a brief but critical assessment of how the state of Alabama provides legal counsel for indigent defendants who are charged with capital crimes or are appealing their convictions and death sentences. While the opinion doesn't require the Alabama Legislature to make improvements, it does provide additional ammunition to criminal defense attorneys and capital punishment opponents who say the current system is weak and could lead to errors and the execution of an innocent person.
"I don't think it would be very wise or prudent of any individual or lawmaker or anyone connected with the legal process to ignore the observations of the Supreme Court of the U.S., and the Supreme Court has spoken loud and clear that the Alabama capital defense system leaves much to be desired," said Birmingham lawyer Wayne Morse, who filed written arguments supporting Maples' case on behalf of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Ginsburg noted that Alabama's standards for a court-appointed attorney to defend a capital case are especially low and their work is undercompensated. They don't have to have any experience in capital cases and they don't have to get any additional training for it. Many defendants end up relying on the charity work of out-of-state firms or nonprofits.
"Nearly alone among the states, Alabama does not guarantee representation to indigent capital defendants in post-conviction proceedings," Ginsburg wrote. The result is that sometimes people who are sentenced to death have no lawyers at all, she wrote.
Bryan Stevenson, who runs the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery and represents many Death Row prisoners, said the justices put a national spotlight on deficiencies that already are well-known in Alabama.
"Alabama has never taken seriously its responsibility to provide adequate representation," Stevenson said Wednesday. "There are dozens of very troubling stories like Cory Maples'."
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange's office declined to comment on the Supreme Court's criticism of the system.