January 01, 2012

US Supreme Court Grants Relief to Death Row Prisoner “Abandoned” by His Lawyers

Emily M. Williams

The United States Supreme Court issued its first major death penalty decision of the 2011-2012 term on January 18, 2012, in Maples v. Thomas. The Court found that Alabama death row prisoner Cory Maples was abandoned by his lawyers, and therefore his failure to file an appeal within the allotted time frame could be excused. The Court’s narrow, fact-based decision was a departure from prior holdings that defendants must bear all consequences of their attorneys’ actions and mistakes, even when it results in their execution.

Alabama provides no state-based right to counsel in post-conviction and has a long history of reliance on out-of-state pro bono counsel to represent indigent defendants. Mr. Maples secured pro bono representation from two associates at the New York office of Sullivan & Cromwell, a large civil law firm. These two attorneys filed a post-conviction petition on behalf of Mr. Maples, but while that petition was pending, they left the firm without notifying Mr. Maples or the court. When the petition was denied, triggering the start of a 42-day clock to file a notice of appeal, copies of the court’s decision were sent to Sullivan & Cromwell. Because the attorneys had left the firm, the mailroom merely returned the mailings to the court clerk in Alabama. Upon receiving the unopened envelopes, the clerk did nothing further to attempt to provide notice to Mr. Maples that his deadline was approaching. The 42-day window expired, and Mr. Maples was procedurally barred from filing any further appeals in either state or federal court.*

Justice Ginsburg, writing for the Court, said that Mr. Maples was “abandoned” by his counsel and as a result was unaware of the need to try to protect his own interests pro se. Under these “extraordinary circumstances,” the Court found the procedural default to be excused. The Court remanded the case to the 11th Circuit for consideration of whether Mr. Maples was prejudiced by his attorneys’ actions. Justice Ginsburg also addressed the failings of the Alabama indigent defense system, noting the “low eligibility requirements for lawyers appointed to represent indigent capital defendants at trial,” lack of compensation, low capped fees, and the state’s unique failure to guarantee representation to indigent capital defendants in post-conviction proceedings. Citing to an American Bar Association study of Alabama’s capital defender system, Justice Ginsburg noted that 86% of attorneys representing death row prisoners in their post-conviction proceedings worked either for a non-profit, such as the Equal Justice Initiative, or an “out-of-state mega-firm,” and some prisoners received no representation at all.

The Court has yet to issue an opinion in another case, Martinez v. Ryan, which was argued the same day as Maples. Martinez also concerns counsel’s performance in post-conviction, but whereas Maples was decided based on principles of agency, Martinez will likely force the Court to more squarely address the question of whether there is a constitutional right to effective counsel in certain post-conviction proceedings.

*Mr. Maples’ unfortunate situation highlights the importance of ensuring that volunteer law firms work with experienced practitioners when representing death-sentenced prisoners on a pro bono basis. The Project’s 25 years of experience working with volunteer law firms has resulted in practices and procedures to ensure that injustices like this do not occur. For example, the Project always assigns experienced capital defenders who serve as strategic counsel and assist the volunteer attorneys. The Project also requires that the prisoner be a client of the law firm rather than of any individual attorneys.

Emily M. Williams

Staff Attorney