Supreme Court Gives Death Row Inmate Relief Due to Big Law Firm Mailroom Screwup

On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Maples v. Thomas that a death row inmate in Alabama must be given another chance to file an appeal after his attorneys abandoned their representation of the defendant, failing to notify the court of their departure and consequently missing the filing deadline for an important appeal.

In 1997, an Alabama court sentenced Cory Maples to death for two counts of capital murder. When Maples’ direct appeals were unsuccessful, he sought post-conviction relief. Two associates at Sullivan & Cromwell, a prestigious New York law firm, agreed to represent Maples pro bono. They filed a petition for post-conviction relief in 2001, alleging in part that Maples was denied effective assistance of counsel. In May 2003, the state trial court denied the petition and sent notice of the denial to Maples’ attorneys. However, both associates had left Sullivan & Cromwell a year before, and the firm returned the unopened envelope containing the petition to the court.

In August 2003, Maples learned that the court denied the petition for relief, but the deadline to file an appeal had passed. Maples’ new attorney filed a federal habeas petition in federal court. The district court denied the petition, holding that Maples had defaulted on his claims by missing the filing deadline. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the decision by a 2-1 vote. Maples’ attorneys appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

In a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the state court could not allow the missed deadline to be held against Maples in light of his attorneys’ nonfeasance. The Supreme Court also castigated Sullivan & Cromwell for its handling of the appeal, considering its reputation as “one of the country’s most prestigious and expensive” law firms. The resulting decision allows lower federal courts to consider his post-conviction relief, including his claim that he was ineffectively assisted by counsel.

To read a copy of the Supreme Court’s decision, click here.

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Author(s): Brooke P. Dolara