(CN) - A death row inmate can petition for federal habeas relief even though he failed to fully appeal his conviction at the state-court level, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, refusing to put blame at the "death-cell door" of a man abandoned by his attorneys in a "perfect storm of misfortune."
Sentenced to death at an Alabama prison in 1997 for a double homicide, Cory Maples retained two New York lawyers to work on his appeal pro-bono.
About a year after the two Sullivan & Cromwell lawyers, Jaasi Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz, filed Maples' appeal, however, they left the firm for new employment.
Munanka gained a clerkship with a federal judge; Ingen-Housz accepted a position with the European Commission in Belgium.
Their new jobs prevented them from representing Maples, but they never informed the inmate, nor did they ask the Alabama trial court to sign off on their withdrawal from the case.
When the Alabama trial court denied the petition authored by Munanka and Ingen-Housz in May 2003, Sullivan & Cromwell returned that notice, unopened, to the trial clerk who took no other action.
Maples had 42 days to file a notice of appeal but assumed that his lawyers would take care of that. He did not contact Sullivan & Cromwell until a state prosecutor told Maples in August that the time to appeal had lapsed. Sullivan & Cromwell then lobbied for an out-of-time appeal, but the trial court said it was "unwilling to enter into subterfuge in order to gloss over mistakes made by counsel." The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and the state Supreme Court were similarly unsympathetic.
Sullivan & Cromwell had sought federal habeas relief in the meantime, but the Northern District of Alabama denied the petition partly on the basis of inexcusable procedural default.
A divided panel of the 11th Circuit affirmed in 2009, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Monday after finding that "the extraordinary facts of Maples' case" give cause to excuse the procedural default.
Alabama is nearly alone among the states in not guaranteeing representation to indigent capital defendants seeking postconviction relief, according to the court.
"As of 2006, 86% of the attorneys representing Alabama's death row inmates in state collateral review proceedings 'either worked for the Equal Justice Initiative (headed by NYU Law professor Bryan Stevenson), out-of-state public interest groups like the Innocence Project, or an out-of-state mega-firm,'" Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the seven-member majority.
For all intents and purposes, Maples had been abandoned.
"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. "Given no reason to suspect that he lacked counsel able and willing to represent him, Maples surely was blocked from complying with the state's procedural rule."
"There was indeed cause to excuse Maples' procedural default," she added. "Through no fault of his own, Maples lacked the assistance of any authorized attorney during the 42 days Alabama allows for noticing an appeal from a trial court's denial of postconviction relief. As just observed, he had no reason to suspect that, in reality, he had been reduced to pro se status. Maples was disarmed by extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control. He has shown ample cause, we hold, to excuse the procedural default into which he was trapped when counsel of record abandoned him without a word of warning."
Justice Samuel Alito, who joined in Ginsburg's opinion, wrote separately to reject Maples' blame of his circumstances on Alabama's unique legal system.
"A similar combination of untoward events could have occurred if petitioner had been represented by Alabama attorneys who were appointed by the court and paid for with state funds," Alito wrote. "The firm whose lawyers represented petitioner pro bono is one of the country's most prestigious and expensive, and I have little doubt that the vast majority of criminal defendants would think that they had won the lottery if they were given the opportunity to be represented by attorneys from such a firm."
"What occurred here was not a predictable consequence of the Alabama system but a veritable perfect storm of misfortune, a most unlikely combination of events that, without notice, effectively deprived petitioner of legal representation," he added.
All of the justices were not as sympathetic, however, with Justice Antonin Scalia finding that Maples had not been totally abandoned and that his alternative argument for postconviction relief, blaming the trial-court clerk, "fares no better."
Though the two Sullivan & Cromwell lawyers effectively renounced their roles as Maples' counsel, "it is an unjustified leap, however, to conclude that Maples was left unrepresented" during his window to appeal, according to the dissent, which was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.
Other Sullivan & Cromwell attorneys, though not admitted to the Alabama bar, met the definition of agents for Maples, and they could have attended to aspects of the case that did not require a court appearance, Alito wrote.
Maples' ignorance of the approaching deadline to appeal "was the fault of counsel who were his agents, and must be charged to him," the dissent states.
"What happened here is simply '[a]ttorney ignorance or inadvertence' of the sort that does not furnish cause to excuse a procedural default," Alito wrote.
The dissent also states that the majority "gets [it] badly wrong" in discounting the representation Maples had in Alabama attorney John Butler as local counsel. Though it was understood that Butler would not take a substantive role in the case, Alito said the majority has conflated ineffectiveness with absence of an agency relationship.
It is simply not the law to, in the interest of fairness, excuse procedural defaults caused by an attorney, according to the dissent.
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.