WIll A Law Firm Missing a Deadline Fail to Stop the Execution of Alabama Death Row's Cory R. Maples?

New York Times columnist Adam Liptak once again does us all a great service by bringing the national media spotlight to bear upon the crisis facing Cory R. Maples, who sets today on Alabama's Death Row. 

Sullivan & Cromwell Missed the Deadline to Appeal

Maples' case currently awaits the determination of the United States Supreme Court.  The High Court must decide the fate of Cory Maples, who relied upon the well-known law firm Sullivan & Cromwell to represent his interests -- only to have the deadline pass for him to file an appeal. 

That's right:  elite Sullivan & Cromwell representation and a basic, basic deadline was blown. 

What the Heck Happened?

As Liptak explains, the Big Firm did not place its firm name within the signature block of the two associates that were on the record as being Maples' defense counsel.  Nevermind the question of whether or not these two were death qualified, had any past criminal defense experience, etc.  We don't get there (yet). 

Apparently, Sullivan & Cromwell felt it would be bad public relations to represent a man facing death at the hands of the State of Alabama so shame (and that's the core issue here, let's not beat around the bush) kept the firm name off the mailing list.  Which wasn't such a big deal until the two lawyers left the firm.

Did Sullivan & Cromwell forward the mail addressed to the two associates to their new mailing address?  No.  They sent the notices back to the court.  That's right: the court.

Return to Sender

Sullivan & Cromwell returned the court's correspondence back to the court itself.  As the New York Times reports, there were TWO envelopes sent back to the court clerk. 

One was marked “Return to Sender — Left Firm” handwritten across the front and just to make sure, it was also stamped “Return to Sender — Attempted Not Known.” The second piece of court correspondence was stamped “Return to Sender — Attempted Unknown,” without any added handwritten message.

Curious by its absence, any reference to the forwarding addresses of the two lawyers who had left the firm.  Surely the law firm knew them.  Surely the State Bar website could provide them.  Apparently, the Sullivan & Cromwell perspective was that the court could figure it out -- it wasn't Sullivan & Cromwell's problem.

Except it was.  And it is.  Because the representation of Cory Maples didn't leave with the two associates -- it was merely reassigned to two other firm lawyers. Who knew zip about what was happening until Cory's mother called to check on the status of the appeal.

What Did Sullivan & Cromwell Do Next?

Swanky Sullivan & Cromwell went before the Atlanta federal appeals court on behalf of Cory Maples.  And lost.   Now, the firm has seen fit to bring in a former United States solicitor general, Gregory G. Garre, to argue on behalf of Mr. Maples before the United States Supreme Court.  And, indirectly of course, he's arguing for Sullivan & Cromwell at this point. 

His big argument to the High Court on why they should grant his petition?  That Cory Maples should not be responsible for his lawyer's mistake. 

However, the federal precedent is filled with clients that do get left holding the bag for their lawyer's mistakes - limitations are passed, deadlines are missed, and the law usually says that the client's remedy is to sue the law firm for malpractice.  Except that Cory Maples can't get his life back from Sullivan & Cromwell.  Sullivan & Cromwell's mail room glitch might well cost Mr. Maples his life. 

Another Lesson in the Crisis of Indigent Defense of Death Penalty Defendants

Why was an elite New York law firm appointed to represent an indigent criminal defendant?  The New York Times reports that the trial lawyers actually told the jury during the penalty phase that they weren't experienced here, and warned the jurors they “may appear to be stumbling around in the dark.” Result?  The jury came back in favor of the death penalty, with a vote of 10 to 2.

It's all about money.  Alabama doesn't budget for indigent appellate defense for those on death row.  Alabama lets elite firms take these cases on pro bono, and they don't even have to be within the state lines: elite firms like Sullivan & Cromwell.   

The reality is that the error that may cost Cory Maples his life isn't just the fault of Sullivan & Cromwell.  It's the responsibility of all who fail to acknowledge and provide for adequate funding for qualified, experienced indigent defense representation in capital punishment cases. 

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Comments (6) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Please check your facts - August 4, 2010 12:29 AM

Mr. Lenamon, I believe you misread Adam Liptak's article.

The associate(s) assigned to the Maples matter represented the appeal for Mr. Maples, and not the trial. This is relevant because you pose the question of whether his attorneys were death qualified or had any criminal background experience. That is a legitimate question for his trial attorneys, however, lack of such experience would not disqualify his appellate attorneys. Mr. Maples had court-appointed attorneys for his trial; likely not S&C associates (I highly doubt S&C would send associates to handle a trial by themselves anywhere, let alone Alabama). I'm not familiar with blogging ethics, but it seems that it would be proper to correct your post to reflect what was written in the article.

Terry Lenamon - August 4, 2010 1:27 PM

Thank you, AS1@yahoo.com, for writing. As further clarification we provide the following, with a link to the 11th Circuit opinion which provides further details (including the names of the attorneys involved, which we have determined unnecessary to post here):

Sullivan & Cromwell associates, licensed in New York, first came on board as counsel for Cory Maples while his case was still before the Alabama trial court, filing pro hac vice motions (obviously granted) and thereafter submitting a Rule 32 Motion to the trial court judge (pursuant to Alabama Rule of Criminal Procedure 32) based in part on an argument of ineffective assistance of counsel. It was notice of the Alabama's trial court's ruling on the Rule 32 Motion that was "returned to sender" (see above).

Whether or not these attorneys were death qualified or had criminal experience does seem to be very relevant as they are arguing the effectiveness - or lack thereof - of defense counsel in a death case. For example, would the Rule 32 Motion have been denied in its totality (grounds for the denial included (1) motion's failure to state a claim and (2) motion's requests procedurally barred because they could have been raised on direct appeal) if expert Alabama criminal appellate counsel had been Maples' champions?

To read the full 11th Cir opinion: http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200715187.pdf.

Joachim - August 8, 2010 4:32 PM

I just want to note that the link to the 11th Circuit opinion doesn't work. The correct link is: http://www.ca11.uscourts.gov/opinions/ops/200715187.pdf

Terry Lenamon - August 9, 2010 1:32 PM

Thanks, Joachim. Appreciated!!

Bay Area Criminal Attorney - January 6, 2011 7:04 PM

Just think if his mother hadn't called to check up on his appeal status...he'd still be in jail. Basically in limbo with no way in or out. If you ask me, the lawyers should be locked up too, or at least removed from the profession.

Roallin - March 21, 2011 3:22 PM

Who cares. All this does is allow him to appeal. A jury of his peers already found him guilty and recommended death.

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