Supreme Court: Cory Maples can appeal death sentence after lawyers missed deadline

The US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.

The Supreme Court ruled today that an Alabama death row inmate who missed a deadline to file an appeal must be given the opportunity to do so because his pro bono lawyers abandoned him, the New York Times reported.

Cory Maples killed two friends after a night of drinking, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Jaasi Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz, two associates in the New York office of the prestigious Sullivan & Cromwell firm, asked Alabama state court in August 2001 to let Maples appeal his conviction since his trial lawyers had been ineffective, the New York Times reported.

The following summer, they left the firm without notifying Maples, the judge or a local attorney who was listed on the appeals, according to the LA Times.

According to the New York Times:

In May 2003, the state court denied the petition, and a clerk sent copies of the ruling to the two lawyers. Sullivan & Cromwell’s mailroom returned the envelopes unopened. One was stamped “Returned to Sender — Attempted Unknown,” the other “Return to Sender — Left Firm.”

After the deadline to appeal this ruling passed, Alabama prosecutors argued Maples had accepted the ruling by default and therefore lost his opportunity to appeal his conviction, the LA Times reported.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that clients are generally held responsible for their lawyers’ actions, the Wall Street Journal reported. "A markedly different situation is presented, however, when an attorney abandons his client without notice," she wrote.

No just system would lay the default at Maples' death-cell door," she added, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were the two dissenters in the 7-2 decision, explaining they wanted to maintain the "principle that defendants are responsible for the mistakes of their attorneys,” the LA Times reported.

"What happened to Maples would never happen to a paying client," Stephen Gillers, a legal ethics professor at New York University, told the Wall Street Journal. “Law firms … need to have strict rules for preventing gaps in representation."

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