Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court appeared unusually sympathetic Tuesday to the plight of an Alabama death row inmate who could be executed because two lawyers handling his appeal had left their law firm without telling him.
When a court clerk sent a letter to their prominent New York firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, advising the young lawyers 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 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, most of the justices signaled they leaned in favor of doing justice.
"It's a capital case. Mr. Maples has lost his right to appeal through no fault of his own.... 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 had happened.
Alabama's state attorney was unyielding. "The state had every prerogative" to bar further appeals because of the missed deadline, Neiman said.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. also sharply questioned the state's lawyer. He noted that an Alabama prosecutor had delivered a note to Maples in prison after the deadline to appeal had passed. "Why did he do it then?" Roberts asked. "Just gloating?"
Although Roberts and Alito are conservative in most criminal cases, they do not always agree with fellow conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Both Roberts and Alito have voted to reopen death penalty cases from the South. Three years ago, Alito wrote an opinion giving a Louisiana death row inmate a new trial because prosecutors had removed all of the blacks from his jury. Roberts agreed. Thomas and Scalia dissented. Earlier this year, Roberts voted to give a Texas death row inmate a new chance to obtain untested DNA evidence in his case.
Only Scalia took up Alabama's side during the argument. "You have a lawyer. It's up to the lawyer to follow what goes on in court," Scalia told the advocate for Maples.
But the Alabama lawyer whose name was on the case did nothing. His only duty was to pass on notices to the two volunteer lawyers in New York, Clara Ingen-Housz and Jaasi Munanka, 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. He is appealing only his death sentence.
One issue Maples would like to make is that his original defense lawyers in Alabama never argued to the jurors that they should spare him from a death sentence because he was impaired at the time of his crime. His jury, by a 10-2 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.
Sullivan & Cromwell hired former U.S. Solicitor Gen. Gregory Garre to appeal the issue to the Supreme Court. "The facts in this case are extraordinary and shocking," Garre told the justices, and this "extraordinary" situation calls for reopening Maples' appeals.