Supreme Court: Death Row Inmate Abandoned by Elite Law Firm Entitled to New Hearing

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had harsh words on Wednesday for two attorneys who had agreed to take up a pro-bono appeal for a death row inmate in Alabama, but then left their elite New York law firm and failed to tell their client.

Ginsburg ruled that the inmate, Cory Maples, was "disarmed by extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control" when his counsel of record "abandoned him without a word of warning" and caused him to miss a critical filing deadline for his appeal.

Writing for a 7-2 majority, Ginsburg reversed a lower court decision and ruled that Maples could have another chance at an appeal.

Cory Maples was convicted of murdering two of his friends, Stacy Alan Terry and Barry Dewayne Robinson II, in 1995. After his conviction Maples sought a new trial based on claims that his trial lawyers had been ineffective for failing to present evidence of his history of mental health problems as well as his intoxication at the time of the crime. Two out- of -state lawyers from the top-shelf New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, volunteered to represent Maples.

But in 2002, while Maples' post-conviction petition remained pending in the Alabama trial court, the attorneys, Jaasi Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz, left the firm.

"In disregard of Alabama law," Ginsburg writes, "neither attorney told Maples of their departure" from the case.

Although a local lawyer, John Butler, was attached to the case, he said he played no substantive role, serving only as a local liaison for the out-of-state attorneys.

The Court ruled that the extraordinary facts of Maples' case earned him "cause" that would excuse the fact that he missed the filing deadline. "In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default at Maples' death-cell door," Ginsburg wrote.

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented from the majority opinion.

Scalia writes, "If the interest of fairness justifies our excusing Maples' procedural default here , it does so whenever a defendant's procedural default is caused by his attorney. That is simply not the law - and cannot be, if the states are to have an orderly system of criminal litigation conducted by counsel."

In court briefs, John C. Neiman Jr., Solicitor General of Alabama, had acknowledged that "on the face of it, it is hard not to feel a little sorry " for Maples. But he reiterated the fact that Maples does not deny killing two people and that he received a "full determination of the merits of his claims" in state court.

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