When we think of error, our first thoughts turn to mistakes of process. Did the court use the wrong legal standard? Did the jury hear evidence that should have been excluded? Did the other side object? But error alone isn’t enough. It has to be harmful. The error must be important enough that it casts doubt upon the legitimacy of the result. There is no do-over unless you can show prejudicial error. That makes sense: Why bother to correct an error that didn’t make a difference in the result? The bigger issue, though, is why prejudicial error alone is not enough. If we know there was prejudicial error—that is, something wrong happened during the trial or appeal and it was a big enough mistake to call into question the fairness of the result—why would we allow the tainted result to stand?
The Supreme Court’s January 2012 decision in Maples v. Thomas wrestled with the tension between fairness and finality where the stakes could not have been higher and the error could not have been more glaring. Maples was sentenced to death. While his post-conviction petition was pending, Maples’s lawyers left their law firm, but they did not seek leave to withdraw from representing Maples. The trial court denied Maples’s petition, the ruling was sent to his attorneys at their prior law firm, and the law firm’s mailroom returned the ruling unopened to the trial court clerk. The time to appeal ran out. When Maples sought permission to file an out-of-time appeal, the state courts refused to waive the procedural defect. Maples then filed a petition for habeas corpus in federal district court. Both the federal district court and appellate court rejected his petition.
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