Prisons are stocked full of people who feel like they are in there because their lawyers screwed, um, up. Let our mailbox testify as much.
But perhaps no one has had worse luck with his lawyer as Alabaman Cory Maples. Maples was on death row and landed New York firm Sullivan & Cromwell to pursue the appeal of his death sentence, arguing that his trial lawyer was constitutionally insufficient.
But when the lawyers representing him left the firm, no one bothered to tell the Alabama court, who sent the notice that it would hear his appeal for post-conviction relief to the firm and had it returned. Maples didn’t learn of the error until he received a letter sent to him in prison telling him that his appeal was abandoned.
Sullivan & Cromwell tried to get the appeal reopened, pushing it as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, which by a 7-2 vote, decided to give Maples the appeal he sought. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the law firm’s mistake was “more than simple attorney negligence.”
Maples, wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on behalf of the Court, had been effectively abandoned not only by the two New York lawyers, but also by the Alabama lawyer, John Butler, whom the lawyers had associated with in order to practice in Alabama. Butler, upon signing onto the case, told his colleagues that he would not make any actual contribution to the case, contrary to Alabama’s requirement that local counsel be more than simple facilitators for out-of-state representation.
“That the minimal participation he undertook was inconsistent with Alabama law,” Ginsburg wrote, “underscores the absurdity of holding Maples barred because Butler signed on as local counsel.”
“Abandoned by counsel, Maples was left unrepresented at a critical time for his state postconviction petition, and he lacked a clue of any need to protect himself,” Ginsburg continued. “In these circumstances, no just system would lay” the blame for Maples’ missing the deadline to appeal at his “death-cell door.”