By Ashley Portero | October 6, 2011

(Quotes for above titled article.)

Capital punishment is a subject that has received a good deal of media play over the past month or so. In particular, the cases of Texas inmate Duane Buck, who was temporarily spared though a stay in execution, and Georgia inmate Troy Davis, who was killed even though a slew of evidence and witness reports that led to his conviction were later recanted, led to widespread discussions about the nation’s application of the death penalty and the legal snags that can make or break a case. The latest court battle surrounding capital punishment now involves a legal and moral question that has even puzzled the U.S. Supreme Court — should a prisoner be executed because of a mail room mix-up? The case in question involves Cory R. Maples, an Alabama death row inmate who is facing execution because two lawyers at a New York law firm handling his appeal left their firm without notifying Maples or the state of Alabama Maples was convicted of gunning down two friends after a night of heavy drinking in 1997, with a jury sentencing him to death with a 10-2 vote. Because Alabama is the only state that does not grant taxpayer funded legal assistance to death-row inmates seeking to challenge what happened at trial, when Maples appealed the death sentence he had local counsel acting in name only and was actually represented pro bono by two second-year associates from the New York law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. Did Mail Room Mistake Result in Lack of Counsel? It seems like a lucky break, but it wasn’t.

Maples’ lawyers, who associated themselves with an Alabama-licensed attorney, John Butler, Jr., as required by state law, initially filed a petition arguing that their client’s death sentence should be overturned due to “ineffective assistance of counsel” at trial. Eighteen months later, a judge dismissed the petition and the court sent notice of the decision to all three lawyers. However, by that time, both of the New York attorneys had left Sullivan & Cromwell, leading the firm’s mailroom to send the decision back to the Alabama court with “Return to Sender” written on the unopened envelope. The county clerk filed the envelope away without informing Butler it had been returned and subsequently Maples — who thought he had three lawyers on his team but in fact didn’t have any — missed the 42-day deadline for filing another appeal. Eventually, the state sent a notice directly to Maples about his denied appeal. …. The Supreme Court may have some extreme characters, but according to reports of the hearing, none of them want to be the person that says a man should be executed as a result of a mailing mistake… except Justice Antonin Scalia. Most of the court seemed surprised at Alabama’s decision to deny a man the right to appeal what is literally a life or death sentence when, according to Justice Samuel Alito, the mix up occurred “through no fault of his [Maples] own, through a series of very unusual and unfortunate circumstances.”

… …Even Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman, when prompted by Kagan, admitted that if he had in the state’s position and had the letter sent back unopened from the missing lawyers, he “suspects that in those circumstances I might well personally do something else.” Scalia, however, said there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution or federal rules of procedure that says an accused party has the right to judicial notice, noting that even in capital punishment cases, “Once you are in court and you have a lawyer, it’s up to your lawyer to follow what goes on in the court.” That may be the point many Americans should take away from this case. Because, if Scalia is right, it means that in the U.S. court system, an accused party’s only lifeline is with their attorney — whether that attorney is competent or not. It means that even if a lawyer unceremoniously (and unprofessionally) drops a client, even one facing lethal injection, well … that’s just tough.

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