Law firm error imperils Alabama death row inmate

October 4, 2011 - 3:25 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is hearing the case of an Alabama death row inmate who missed a court deadline because two lawyers at a venerable New York firm handling his appeal moved on to other jobs and a court notice was returned to sender, address unknown.

State and federal courts upheld Cory Maples' death sentence and relied on the missed deadline to refuse to consider his claims that he received inadequate representation, dating back to his trial on charges he gunned down two friends in 1995.

A jury convicted him of the shootings and then sentenced him to death by a 10-2 vote.

Maples' lawyer in the Supreme Court is former Solicitor General Gregory Garre, who says no one should be executed without a court review of "serious constitutional questions." Garre wants the justices to order lower courts to consider Maples' claim that the quality of his earlier lawyers' work was so bad that it violated the Constitution.

Support for Maples has come from former Alabama judges, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups. Twenty states and a nonprofit group that backs the death penalty are supporting Alabama's call for the high court to uphold the death sentence.

For its part, Alabama says that Maples' protests are overblown because he was never left without a lawyer and that, in any case, the role of Maples' lawyers in missing the deadline is unfortunate but nothing the court should correct under its earlier rulings.

Whatever the shortcomings of Maples' trial lawyers, he appeared to "win the lottery" when two lawyers at Sullivan and Cromwell agreed to represent him for free in his appeals, Garre said. The New York-based firm has 800 lawyers and offices in a dozen cities.

From December 2001 until May 2003 not much happened in the case. But then an Alabama court rejected Maples' claims that were prepared and filed by the firm's lawyers. The court sent a notice to the lawyers, as well as a local attorney in Alabama, starting a 42-day clock for appealing the order.

What neither the court nor Maples knew was that during the previous summer, both lawyers left Sullivan and Cromwell, one for a job in Europe and the other to clerk for a federal judge. The notices sent to the firm were returned, while the local lawyer did nothing, thinking the New Yorkers were on the case.

The court clerk likewise did nothing when the notices came back indicating the lawyers were no longer at the firm, even though the lawyers' personal telephone numbers and home addresses were in the court's file on Maples. Garre, who served as the top Supreme Court lawyer for President George W. Bush, says the clerk's inaction in a capital case "defies common sense" and should lead the justices to rule for Maples.

Only after the deadline passed did Maples find out what happened — or rather, didn't happen — on his behalf. Other lawyers at Sullivan and Cromwell tried to continue the appeal. The firm did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Both state and federal courts ruled that Maples was out of luck.

The state says the court should not lose sight of the crime, shooting two people to death, that landed Maples in his current predicament. The defendant has had all the legal help he is due, the state said.

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