The U.S. Supreme Court decided Mapels v. Thomas
in a 7-2 vote on Wednesday that an Alabama death row prisoner should be allowed to appeal despite having missed a deadline after his attorneys dropped his case without notifying him. The two attorneys at the major New York firm of Sullivan and Cromwell failed to alert Alabama judicial authorities so that when the court clerk sent papers to the attorneys the firm’s mailroom returned them unopened, marked “Return to Sender.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Abandoned by counsel, (Cory) Maples was left unrepresented at a critical time … and he lacked any clue of any need to protect himself.” Ginsburg continued, “In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default (arising from a missed deadline) at Maples’ death-cell door.”
The decision meant a reversal of an earlier decision by the US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. Maples had been convicted and sentenced to death for the 1995 killings of two companions, Stacy Terry and Barry Robinson, after a wild night of heavy drinking. At the trial in 1997, Maples pleaded not guilty and was represented by two court-appointed Alabama attorneys. It was noted that only one of those trial lawyers had earlier served on a capital case and that their compensation was limited.
Only Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. They instead believed that a state is permitted to enforce its deadlines and court procedures related to death penalty appeals even when lawyers are at fault.
The case garnered much attention as the firm at the center is so prominent. The NAACP sided with Maples in the case and twenty states joined Alabama in arguing against the claim for ineffective assistance of counsel.
Ginsburg emphasized Maple’ unusual situation. After the Sullivan and Cromwell lawyers volunteered to represent Maples, pro bono, and had filed a petition challenging his murder conviction, they left their law firm for jobs elsewhere. Ginsburg stressed that when they left the firm in 2002, Jaasi Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz did not tell Maples or seek permission from an Alabama trial court to withdraw. After their departure no other attorneys at Sullivan and Cromwell took over the case. A few months after the departure a trial court denied Maples’ petition and the clerk of court sent notice to the lawyers. The firm returned the notices unopened. Maples was then blocked from appealing the denial because he missed the deadline as the clock had started running the day the denial was issued.
Ginsburg made clear that usually attorney “negligence or oversight” would not result in a new hearing. What happened in this case was characterized as something altogether different, “Maples alleges something graver than attorney oversight. He contends that his attorneys abandoned him.”
The decision in Maples v. Thomas means that Maples will now be allowed to present arguments on his Sixth Amendment claim of ineffective assistance of counsel.