Friday, January 20, 2012

New York Times re: Sullivan & Cromwell's Abandonment of Death Penalty Client -- Supreme Court Grants Relief

January 18, 2012
Justices Rule for Inmate After Mailroom Mix-Up

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that an Alabama death row inmate who missed a filing deadline thanks to a mix-up in the mailroom of a prominent New York law firm must be given another chance.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority in the 7-to-2 decision, said “no just system” would allow the missed deadline to be held against the inmate, Cory R. Maples, in light of how he had been treated by lawyers from Sullivan & Cromwell, who handled his case without charge after he was convicted of murdering two people in 1997. The decision allows lower federal courts to consider Mr. Maples’s claim that his trial court lawyers were ineffective notwithstanding the missed deadline in the state court system.

“Maples was disarmed by extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

In a concurrence, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. described what had happened to Mr. Maples as “a veritable perfect storm of misfortune,” starting with the oddity that much of it was attributable to lawyers from “one of the country’s most prestigious and expensive” law firms.

“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,” he added.

Yet two lawyers from Sullivan & Cromwell failed to inform Mr. Maples when they left the firm. Nor did they tell the court from which they were awaiting a ruling in his case. When two copies of that ruling were sent to the firm, it returned them unopened.

Justice Ginsburg’s opinion included a critique of Alabama’s capital justice system. At the time of Mr. Maples’s trial, court-appointed lawyers in capital cases were paid $40 an hour for time in court and $20 an hour otherwise, with a $1,000 cap on out-of-court work.

Mr. Maples was convicted of murdering two companions after a night of drinking. “His inexperienced and underfunded attorneys,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “failed to develop and raise an obvious intoxication defense, did not object to several egregious instances of prosecutorial misconduct and woefully underprepared for the penalty phase of his trial.”

At one point the lawyers apologized to the jury, saying that they “may appear to be stumbling around in the dark.” Even so, the jury’s vote recommending the death penalty was 10 to 2, the minimum required under Alabama law.

Justice Ginsburg was also critical of how Alabama handles challenges to convictions. Alabama is nearly alone among the states, she wrote, in that it “does not guarantee representation to indigent capital defendants in post-conviction proceedings.” Instead, the state relies on volunteer lawyers from public interest law firms and from the pro bono practices of major firms.

Two young associates from Sullivan & Cromwell’s New York office, Jaasi Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz, filed a post-conviction petition in state court in August 2001, arguing that Mr. Maples’s trial lawyers had been ineffective. The next summer, they left the firm.

In May 2003, the state court denied the petition, and a clerk sent copies of the ruling to the two lawyers. Sullivan & Cromwell’s mailroom returned the envelopes unopened. One was stamped “Returned to Sender — Attempted Unknown,” the other “Return to Sender — Left Firm.”

The deadline for an appeal came and went, and state and federal courts ruled against Mr. Maples’s request to waive the deadline.

The usual rule in post-conviction proceedings is that a lawyer’s mistakes are imputed to the client, on the theory that the lawyer is the client’s agent. “We do not disturb that general rule,” Justice Ginsburg wrote.

What was different here, she said, was that the lawyers had abandoned their client, severing the agency relationship. “Moreover,” Justice Ginsburg said in announcing the decision from the bench Wednesday morning, Mr. Maples “lacked any clue that he had better fend for himself.”

Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, dissented. Justice Scalia said Mr. Maples was represented throughout, as other Sullivan & Cromwell lawyers had taken action when they learned of the missed deadline. Justice Ginsburg responded that “the record is cloudy” on this point, adding that the firm operated under “a significant conflict of interest” at that point.

Justice Scalia noted that an Alabama lawyer, John G. Butler Jr., had also represented Mr. Maples as local counsel and had also received a copy of the ruling. Justice Ginsburg said Mr. Butler had been Mr. Maples’s lawyer in name only, in order to satisfy a requirement of Alabama law concerning out-of-state lawyers.

Justice Scalia acknowledged the majority’s “understandable sense of frustration.” But he said the majority opinion in the case, Maples v. Thomas, No. 10-63, had provided a road map to other death row inmates. “The trick will be to allege,” Justice Scalia wrote, “not that counsel was ineffective, but rather that the counsel’s ineffectiveness demonstrates that he was not a genuinely representative agent.”

Justice Ginsburg wrote that the decision was limited and straightforward.

“In these circumstances,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “no just system would lay the default at Maples’s death-cell door.”

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