WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, citing a “perfect storm” of missing lawyers and unopened letters, gave an Alabama death row inmate a new chance to appeal his conviction in a case that sharply split the conservatives on the bench.
Corey Maples had been “abandoned” by his two New York lawyers who left their law firm without telling him and missed the deadline for filing his appeal. “In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default at Maples’ death-cell door,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for a 7-2 majority.
It was the second time in two weeks the high court rebuked prosecutors and judges from the South in a case of justice gone wrong. In both cases, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. sided with the majority in ruling for the defendant.
Last week, Roberts faulted New Orleans prosecutors for hiding the fact that their only eyewitness in a murder trial had initially told police that he could not identify anyone. The 8-1 ruling reversed the conviction, with only Justice Clarence Thomas dissenting.
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Thomas, dissented in Wednesday’s ruling reopening the Alabama case.
Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project, a bipartisan legal reform group, praised the ruling for putting “justice over technicalities and fundamental fairness over procedural rules.”
Death penalty foes have pointed to Alabama as having a “broken” system of capital punishment. Its trial lawyers are poorly paid and often are newcomers to capital cases. No state funding is provided for appeals. Most defendants must rely on out-of-state law firms that volunteer to represent them.
Maples was drunk and on drugs when he shot and killed two friends in 1997. A jury voted 10-2 to sentence him to death. Afterward, Maples contended that he would have gotten life in prison, not death, if his inexperienced trial lawyers had argued he was thoroughly intoxicated on the night of the murders.
He may have thought he had a lucky break when two young lawyers from the prestigious New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell agreed to represent him. They enlisted a local lawyer in Alabama to help and filed an initial appeal in 2002.
About 18 months later, a state judge denied the appeal. But by then, the two New York lawyers — Jaasi Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz — had left the firm for other jobs without telling Maples, the judge or the local lawyer. Copies of the judge’s order came back marked “Return to Sender.”
An Alabama court clerk took no action when the letters were returned. After 42 days, the deadline to appeal this order expired. Alabama prosecutors told Maples the door to filing further appeals had closed forever.
The Alabama courts, a federal judge and a U.S. court of appeals all ruled against Maples, citing his “procedural default” at the initial stage.
The Supreme Court ruled for Maples, citing “the extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control.” In a concurring opinion, Alito said that a “veritable perfect storm of misfortune, a most unlikely combination of events,” had come together to unfairly deprive Maples of a chance to appeal.