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August 3, 2010

Another capital test case concerning defendant's fate after lawyers' failings

Adam Liptak's always interesting Sidebar column in the New York Times this week is focused on a capital appeal from Alabama under the headline "A Mailroom Mix-Up That Could Cost a Life."   Here are excerpts:

Sullivan & Cromwell is a law firm with glittering offices in a dozen cities around the world, and some of its partners charge more than $1,000 an hour. The firm’s paying clients, at least, demand impeccable work.

Cory R. Maples, a death row inmate in Alabama, must have been grateful when lawyers from the firm agreed to represent him without charge.  But the assistance he got may turn out to be lethal.

When an Alabama court sent two copies of a ruling in Mr. Maples’s case to the firm in New York, its mailroom sent them back unopened [because two] associates handling Mr. Maples’s case had [left S&C and] no one bothered to tell the court or the mailroom that new lawyers there had stepped in.  By the time Mr. Maples’s mother called, her son’s time to appeal had run out....

Sullivan & Cromwell has worked hard to undo the damage, but it has so far failed to persuade the courts to waive the deadline for filing an appeal.  After losing in the federal appeals court in Atlanta, the firm persuaded a former United States solicitor general, Gregory G. Garre, to represent Mr. Maples in the Supreme Court.

Last month, Mr. Garre asked the justices to hear the case.  The core of his argument — one that might convince a schoolchild if not a federal judge — is that Mr. Maples should not be blamed for a mistake he did not commit....

In the Maples case, Judge Glenn E. Thompson, of the Circuit Court in Morgan County, Alabama, was not willing to cut the pro bono lawyers before him any slack.  He said deadlines were deadlines and ruled that a court clerk was not required to do anything to follow up when life-or-death rulings came back from Sullivan & Cromwell unopened.  “How can a circuit court clerk in Decatur, Ala., know what is going on in a law firm in New York, N.Y.?” Judge Thompson asked.

An Alabama lawyer, John G. Butler Jr., also represented Mr. Maples, and there is no dispute that he received a copy of the crucial ruling.  But Mr. Butler said in a sworn statement that he was Mr. Maples’s lawyer in name only, serving as local counsel because the New York lawyers were not licensed to practice in Alabama.  He said he had not passed the ruling along to his co-counsel or to his client.

Nor did the court clerk think to inform the man whose life was at stake.  A federal appeals court last year said that was Mr. Maples’s fault.  “Maples never requested the clerk to give him personal notice in addition to his counsel,” an unsigned opinion for a divided three-judge panel of the court said.

August 3, 2010 at 12:05 AM | Permalink

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The end of the article mentions a scotus decision with an interesting line up: Roberts and four liberals in majority; Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy dissenting; Alito did not take part.

In 2006, in Jones v. Flowers, the Supreme Court considered what sort of notice must be given when the government wants to sell a home for unpaid taxes. If a letter is returned unopened, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority, officials must try harder to reach the owner.

“This is especially true,” he wrote, “when, as here, the subject matter of the letter concerns such an important and irreversible prospect as the loss of a house.”

Posted by: . | Aug 3, 2010 8:28:34 AM

it is criminal and just plain STUPID decisions like this that get these idiot judges SHOT AT!

Posted by: rodsmith | Aug 3, 2010 1:12:10 PM

Does it seem that the recent habeas decision, regarding the serious negligence of counsel in relation to timely filing and the AEDPA statute of limitations, would be applicable or at least somewhat relevant? Holland v. Flordia

Posted by: Tim Holloway | Aug 3, 2010 1:12:21 PM

I'm admittedly unfamiliar with federal law on this kind of thing, but in a lot of states, he could file a habeas petition claiming IAC for failure to timely file the appeal. I would think he'd have a good shot at winning that kind of claim.

Posted by: SRS | Aug 3, 2010 2:12:48 PM

Part of the problem, when mistakes are made in federal habeas matters, is that you do not have a constitutional right to counsel during those proceedings. "Cause" and "prejudicee" related to ineffective assistance of counsel is based on the idea that the lawyer's errors are in violation of the constitution when they are made in proceedings where there is a constitutional right to counsel. I believe, with Holland v. Florida (which I have not read in great detail) there was some idea of equity requiring tolling in relation to mistakes made where there was no constitutional right counsel in a state court proceeding.

Posted by: Tim Holloway | Aug 3, 2010 2:52:17 PM

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