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Top Court Sides With Death-Row Inmate on Law Firm Mix-Up

The U.S. Supreme Court revived an appeal from an Alabama death-row inmate who missed a legal filing deadline because of a mailroom error at the New York law firm that was representing him.

The justices, voting 7-2 today to reverse a lower court, said Cory R. Maples was entitled to another chance to challenge his death sentence for killing two friends in 1995.

“Maples was disarmed by extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.

The ruling is a victory for criminal defendants at a court that in other cases has been reluctant to excuse missed deadlines. In 2007, the justices threw out an appeal by a convicted murderer who missed a filing deadline because of a judge’s error.

Maples had been represented without charge by two lawyers at New York’s Sullivan & Cromwell LLP in his 2001 bid to overturn his conviction. By the time an Alabama judge ruled against Maples in 2003, both lawyers had left the firm.

When the clerk’s office for the Alabama court mailed the judge’s order to the two lawyers, both envelopes were returned. One was stamped, “Returned to Sender -- Attempted, Unknown,” and the other had a similar stamp along with “Return to Sender -- Left Firm” written by hand.

No Additional Steps

The clerk’s office didn’t take any additional steps to contact the lawyers, and Maples himself didn’t learn about the order until a month after the appeal deadline had passed.

“Had counsel of record or the state’s attorney informed Maples of his plight before the time to appeal ran out, he could have filed a notice of appeal himself or enlisted the aid of new volunteer attorneys,” Ginsburg wrote.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying Maples didn’t have a constitutional right to an attorney for the proceedings at issue in the case. Maples was seeking to set aside a conviction that had already been upheld on appeal.

“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 for the pair. “That is simply not the law -- and cannot be, if the states are to have an orderly system of criminal litigation conducted by counsel.”

The case is Maples v. Thomas, 10-63.

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