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High Court Sides With Man Abandoned By Attorneys

The U.S. Supreme Court has given an Alabama death row inmate another chance to fight his execution. By a 7-to-2 vote, the court ruled Wednesday that convicted murderer Cory Maples, "through no fault of his own," was denied the right to appeal because he was abandoned by his lawyers.

Maples was convicted in 1997 of murdering two friends and was sentenced to death. There is no doubt that he committed the crime; the doubt is whether he could have avoided the death penalty if he had been properly represented at trial.

Alabama, almost alone among the states, does not provide post-conviction appeals lawyers for indigent defendants in capital cases. The gap is filled almost entirely by public interest organizations or large out-of-state law firms that take on these cases on a pro bono basis. This case involves one of those firms, Sullivan & Cromwell, a New York firm that prides itself on its pro bono work but here committed a stunning series of mistakes that, until Wednesday, denied Maples the right to challenge the fairness of his trial.

In 2001, it appeared that Maples had won the lottery when two junior attorneys at Sullivan & Cromwell took on his post-conviction appeal. His new lawyers filed a brief claiming that the court-appointed lawyers who represented Maples at trial were so incompetent that their representation denied him due process of law. In 2002, however, the two New York lawyers left Sullivan & Cromwell for government jobs that barred them from further work on the case.

A 'Perfect Storm Of Misfortune'

The lawyers did not tell Maples they were leaving the firm, nor did they advise the Alabama court of their departure, and Sullivan & Cromwell did not seek to substitute other lawyers in their place. In 2003, the Alabama trial court — without holding a hearing — denied the ineffective assistance of counsel claim.

That started the appeals clock ticking: Sullivan & Cromwell had 42 days in which to file an appeal.

But when the clerk of the court sent the notice to the two junior associates at Sullivan & Cromwell, the two lawyers were long gone, and the law firm mailroom sent the envelopes back unopened with the words "Return to Sender — Left Firm" prominently written on the outside.

Back in Alabama, the court clerk simply filed the unopened envelopes and did not seek to contact the lawyers at the home addresses she had for them.

Up to this point, Maples was blissfully unaware of his own predicament. But in August of 2003, the state attorney general's office sent him a letter in prison notifying him that he had missed the deadline for his appeal. Maples then called his mother. She called Sullivan & Cromwell, and the law firm embarked on a mad scramble to correct its error. But all the state and federal appeals courts said Maples was out of luck. He had defaulted on his right to appeal by missing the deadline.

On Wednesday, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Maples is entitled to his appeal because he was abandoned by his lawyers. Writing for a seven-justice majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that while a lawyer's failure to meet a deadline is not usually grounds for giving a defendant a second chance to file, this case is different. In a concurrence, Justice Samuel Alito called the case "a veritable perfect storm of misfortune."

Questions Over Attorney Responsibility

Dissenting were Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. They said that the court's decision "invites future evisceration of the principle that defendants are responsible for the mistakes of their attorneys."

Not so, said Ginsburg for the majority, observing that "Maples was left unrepresented at a critical time" and "lacked a clue" about his predicament. In these circumstances, she said, "no just system would lay the default at Maples' death-cell door."

Ginsburg tracked the progress of the Maples case from the start. She noted that although death penalty cases are time-intensive, taking on average about 1,500 hours for pretrial preparation, Alabama capped the out-of-court fee for court-appointed lawyers in capital cases at $1,000.

The Sullivan & Cromwell lawyers had prepared an appeal claiming, among other things, that Maples' court-appointed trial lawyers were so underfunded and inexperienced that they had failed to take advantage of the state's evidence of intoxication. That evidence might well have reduced his conviction from first-degree murder to a lesser charge, and would clearly have been mitigating evidence that might have prevented a death sentence — if used properly.

Indeed, the trial lawyers actually admitted to the jury that they were "stumbling around in the dark," given their inexperience in capital cases.

Now Maples' appellate lawyers will have the chance to make that case. Ineffective assistance of counsel claims are tough to win, but experts said Maples at least has a shot at it now.

Separate Decision Upholds Copyright Law

In a separate decision, the court also upheld a federal law extending copyright protection for music, books and films that had previously been free and unprotected by copyright law. The 1994 law was enacted to bring the United States into compliance with an international copyright treaty, but the practical effect was that works that were once free now had to be paid for.

The law was challenged by community orchestras, teachers, librarians and academics, who argued that paying licensing fees and royalties would prevent them from using the material. They argued that the works had been released from U.S. copyright protection, and under the U.S. Constitution they could not be placed under that protection again. At issue are thousands of creations, ranging from musical compositions like Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf to books by C.S. Lewis and paintings by Picasso.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday sided with the government, upholding the law. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the 6-2 majority, said that the law was "comfortably" within Congress' powers, and there was nothing in the Constitution that prevented works in the public domain from regaining copyright protection. She added that organizations would still be able to use these works, but they would be obtained in the marketplace.

"Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolfcould once be performed free of charge," Ginsburg wrote. "[After the 1994 law], the right to perform it must be obtained in the marketplace. This is the same marketplace, of course, that exists for the music of Prokofiev's U.S. contemporaries: works of Copland and Bernstein, for example, that enjoy copyright protection, but nevertheless appear regularly in the programs of U.S. concertgoers."

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote a dissent, joined by Justice Samuel Alito. Justice Elena Kagan took no part in the decision.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.