Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Court to Hear Case Stalled by Mistake in Mailroom

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear an appeal from a death row inmate who faces execution after a mailroom mix-up at one of the nation’s most prominent law firms.

Lawyers at the firm, Sullivan & Cromwell, had agreed to represent Cory R. Maples, a death row inmate in Alabama, without charge. When an Alabama court sent two copies of a ruling in Mr. Maples’s case to the firm in New York, its mailroom sent them back unopened and stamped “Return to Sender.”

Two associates handling Mr. Maples’s case had indeed left the firm, but it appears that no one told the court or the mailroom that new lawyers there had taken over. A court clerk in Alabama put the returned envelopes into the court file and did nothing more.

An Alabama lawyer, John G. Butler Jr., also represented Mr. Maples and also received a copy of the ruling. Mr. Butler said in a sworn statement that he was Mr. Maples’s lawyer in name only, serving as local counsel for the New York lawyers handling the case. He said he had not passed the ruling along to them or to Mr. Maples.

A deadline for filing an appeal from the ruling came and went, and so far the courts have rejected Mr. Maples’s request for an extension given the circumstances. “How can a circuit court clerk in Decatur, Ala., know what is going on in a law firm in New York, N.Y.?” Judge Glenn E. Thompson of the Circuit Court in Morgan County, Ala., later wrote.

Mr. Maples’s new lawyers, led by Gregory G. Garre, a former United States solicitor general, had asked the Supreme Court to consider two legal questions in the case, one technical, the other more fundamental. The court agreed to answer only the broader one: Whether missing a filing deadline may be excused when the inmate was blameless, the government’s actions were a contributing factor and the inmate’s lawyers had effectively stopped representing him?
Read the rest here.

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