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High court hears case of Alabama death row inmate Cory Maples

October 4, 2011 | 12:03 pm

Supreme Court 
This post has been corrected. See the note at the bottom for details.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday took up the case of an Alabama death row inmate who could be executed because two young New York lawyers handling his appeal had left Sullivan & Cromwell, a prominent New York law firm, without telling him.

When a court clerk sent a letter advising them that Cory Maples' initial appeal had been denied, it was returned marked: “Return To Sender — Left Firm.” The 42-day deadline to appeal then expired.

At that point, Alabama’s state prosecutors and its state judges took a stiff stand. They said Maples was barred from further appeals because he had “defaulted,” even though he did not know of his lawyers’ lapse at the time. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta agreed with Alabama.

The case of Maples vs. Alabama posed a stark conflict between strictly enforcing the procedural rules of law and doing justice in an individual case. And during Tuesday’s argument, nearly all the justices signaled they leaned in favor of doing justice.

“Why didn’t you consent to this? Why push this technical argument?” Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. asked Alabama state solicitor John C. Neiman Jr.

A conservative who is skeptical of many death penalty appeals, Alito nonetheless said he did not understand why Alabama’s state prosecutors did not allow Maples to go forward with an appeal once they learned what happened. “It’s a capital case … and a series of very unfortunate circumstances,” Alito said.

Alabama’s state attorney was unyielding. “The state had every prerogative” to bar further appeals because of the missed deadline, Neiman replied.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also sharply questioned the Alabama lawyer.

Only Justice Antonin Scalia took up Alabama’s side during the argument. “You have a local lawyer. It’s up to the lawyer to follow the rules,” Scalia told the lawyer for Maples.

But the chief justice interjected to disagree. The local Alabama lawyer whose name was on the case, in fact, did nothing. His only duty was to pass on notices to the two volunteer lawyers, Clara Ingen-Housz and Jaasi Munanka in New York, who were supposedly representing Maples.

In 1995, Maples shot and killed two friends after a night of drinking and using drugs, and he confessed to the crimes.

One issue Maples would like to argue in an appeal of his death sentence is that his original Alabama trial lawyers never argued to the jury that it should spare him from a death sentence because he was impaired at the time of his crime. His jury, by a 10 to 2 vote, recommended a death sentence. Alabama pays no more than $1,000 for defense lawyers.

The justices were also told that Alabama, virtually alone among the states, will not pay for defense lawyers in capital cases once the conviction is final. As a result, out-of-state attorneys often volunteer to do the work.

In Maple’s case, the two lawyers at Sullivan & Cromwell in New York took on his appeal, even though they were not licensed to practice in Alabama. They later left the firm without telling Maples.

State prosecutors seized on the missed deadline and argued — successfully in the lower courts — that Maples could no longer appeal his death sentence.

Sullivan & Cromwell hired former U.S. Solicitor General Gregory Garre to appeal the issue to the Supreme Court. He argued that the federal courts made a mistake in blocking further appeals from Maples because he was “blameless for the default.”

“The facts in this case are extraordinary and shocking,” Garre told the justices, and this “extraordinary” situation calls for reopening Maples’ appeals.

-- David G. Savage in Washington, D.C.

For the record at 12:57 p.m.: Tuesday: An earlier headline on this post incorrectly said the Supreme Court would hear the Cory Maples case. The hearing was held Tuesday.

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Photo: The U.S. Supreme Court opened a new term this week. Credit:  Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty Images

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