Thursday, January 19, 2012

'Abandoned by Counsel,' Death Row Inmate Gets Another Hearing

""The client bears the risk of all attorney errors…regardless of the egregiousness of the mistake," Justice Scalia said.

US Supreme Court Orders New Hearing For Morgan County Convict

Cory Maples
Gets Another Hearing

The National Law Journal, 01-19-2012 on the error of Cory Maples' Attorneys at Sullivan & Cromwell  to file a timely appeal of his death sentence:
""The client bears the risk of all attorney errors…regardless of the egregiousness of the mistake," Justice Scalia said.
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Jan. 18 that an Alabama death row inmate should not be penalized for missing a crucial appeal deadline when the error was caused by his pro bono lawyers from Sullivan & Cromwell.
The 7-2 ruling in Maples v. Thomas, 10-63, brings an end to a "lawyer's nightmare" case that showed how a series of law firm mailroom and notice errors as well as the departure of two associates could nearly result in a client's execution. In excruciating detail, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recited the "uncommon facts" and mishaps that amounted to abandonment of convicted murderer Cory Maples by his Sullivan & Cromwell lawyers at the precise moment when Mr. Maples faced a filing deadline for his state post-conviction appeal.
"Abandoned by counsel, Maples was left unrepresented at a critical time for his state post-conviction petition, and he lacked a clue of any need to protect himself pro se," wrote Justice Ginsburg. "In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default at Maples' death-cell door."
In a concurrence, Justice Samuel Alito Jr. described Sullivan & Cromwell as "one of the country's most prestigious and expensive" law firms, and said what befell Mr. Maples was "a veritable perfect storm of misfortune."
Law firms usually rejoice at being cited by the Supreme Court, but not in this vein. Asked for comment on the decision, Sullivan & Cromwell released a brief statement: "We're pleased that Mr. Maples won his appeal in the Supreme Court."
Former Solicitor General Gregory Garre, who represents Mr. Maples, was "thrilled" by the decision in the case, but the Latham & Watkins partner declined to comment on its impact.
Because it represented such a serious breach of a lawyer's duty to a client, the Maples case struck a chord with many lawyers and law firms as it made its way to the high court.
"No lawyer would ever want a client to suffer the ultimate punishment because of being abandoned by counsel," said Jonathan Franklin of Fulbright & Jaworski, who filed a brief in the case on behalf of the Constitution Project and the Cato Institute on Mr. Maples' behalf. "This was the ultimate disservice to a client."
In terms of legal doctrine, the ruling also may open the door to more claims by death-row inmates citing ineffective assistance by post-conviction counsel. The Supreme Court's 1991 ruling in Coleman v. Thompson, 501 U.S. 722, seemed to foreclose such claims previously.
The Court's decision on Jan. 18 overturned a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit that found the circumstances of the missed deadline could not overcome the procedural default that resulted. The case returns to lower courts for a hearing on whether the error prejudiced his case, after which the merits of his ineffective assistance claim could be considered.
Accused of a double murder in 1997, Mr. Maples was represented at trial by two court-appointed lawyers, only one of whom had experience in capital cases. Mr. Maples was convicted and sentenced to death. Justice Ginsburg noted disapprovingly that Alabama, "nearly alone among the states," does not guarantee post-conviction legal representation for indigent defendants. Instead, it depends on volunteer efforts, often by large out-of-state law firms.
In Mr. Maples' case, Sullivan & Cromwell New York associates Jaasi Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz worked on his appeal, which cited ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. Alabama rules require a local attorney as well, so Huntsville lawyer John Butler was hired for that role, though from the outset, he told the two Sullivan lawyers he would not deal with the substance of the case.
In 2002, both Sullivan lawyers left the firm for positions that precluded continuing to represent Mr. Maples—Mr. Munanka clerked for a federal judge and Ms. Ingen-Housz went to work at the European Commission. But neither lawyer told Mr. Maples they were leaving, nor sought permission to withdraw from Alabama courts. The firm did not notify the Alabama court of any substitutions. So when the trial court first denied Mr. Maples' appeal, notice to the lawyers was sent to Sullivan, where the mailroom returned the envelopes unopened. Mr. Butler received notice, but did not act on it. The court clerk made no attempt to track down the lawyers.
"Meanwhile, the clock ticked on Maples' appeal," wrote Justice Ginsburg. The deadline expired, and a month later an Alabama assistant attorney general notified Mr. Maples himself. Mr. Maples then contacted his mother, who got in touch with Sullivan & Cromwell. A new set of lawyers there petitioned the Alabama court to re-state the deadline, but their plea was denied.
Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented. Noting that defendants have no constitutional right to be represented by counsel in post-conviction proceedings.
"The client bears the risk of all attorney errors…regardless of the egregiousness of the mistake," Justice Scalia said.
New hearing for US death row inmate in 'returned mail' case
In a 7-2 vote, the highest US court ordered a new hearing for convicted murderer Cory Maples in the case, reversing a lower court ruling.
Maples was sentenced to death by an Alabama court in 1997 for murdering two of his friends after a night of drugs and binge drinking.
He unsuccessfully filed a petition for relief after the conviction, claiming that his trial lawyer had failed to offer evidence about his mental health, alcohol and drug history.
A new legal team was sent notice that Maples had 42 days to file an appeal, but by the time letter was sent out, they were no longer employed by their New York firm, and the letter was returned unopened.
As well as failing to file his appeal by required date, he was also denied an extension -- a decision appealed to the US top court.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the court opinion that the lower court erred in its ruling, and that the condemned man could not be held accountable for the mistake.
Ginsburg wrote that Maples had believed that his attorneys were "vigilantly representing him," when in fact they "had abandoned the case without leave of court, without informing Maples they could no longer represent him, and without securing any recorded substitution of counsel."
"No just system would lay the default at Maples' death cell door," Ginsburg added in the court opinion.
The former civil liberties attorney also decried the low eligibility requirements that Alabama sets for lawyers appointed to represent indigent defendants in death penalty cases, as well as the paltry pay these lawyers often receive.
Maples, who claimed that his court-appointed lawyers did an inadequate job defending him, was represented before the justices by a team of lawyers led by Gregory Garre, a former US solicitor general.
During arguments before the Supreme Court back in October, Garre stressed that his client was not asking to be freed from prison, simply that his case be heard and decried the "extraordinary and shocking" circumstances at work -- especially in a "capital case when an individual life is at stake."
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.
"If the interest of fairness justifies our excusing Maples? procedural default here, it does so whenever a defendant?s procedural default is caused by his attorney," Scalia wrote in the dissent.
"That is simply not the law -- and cannot be, if the states are to have an orderly system of criminal litigation conducted by counsel," he wrote.

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