By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered a new hearing for a convicted murderer on death row in Alabama who missed a deadline to appeal because his New York lawyers went to other jobs and critical court notices were returned unopened by the law firm's mailroom.
By a 7-2 vote, the justices ruled that a U.S. appeals court had been wrong in refusing to consider the inadequate legal representation claims by the inmate, Cory Maples, who was convicted of two murders in 1995 and sentenced to death.
Maples had argued that he received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial. When an Alabama court rejected those claims, it sent the notices to his two attorneys at the prominent New York law firm Sullivan and Cromwell, not knowing they had left the firm and no longer represented Maples.
When the attorneys left the firm, they had arranged for other lawyers to take over the case, but did not notify Maples or the court.
The law firm's mailroom sent the notices back unopened and stamped "Return to Sender." A local attorney in Alabama for Maples also received a copy of the ruling, but did nothing, thinking the New York lawyers were handling it.
Maples missed the filing deadline to appeal to federal courts. After the deadline had passed, an Alabama prosecutor wrote directly to Maples in prison to inform him what had happened.
The Supreme Court sent the case back to lower federal courts for further proceedings and hearings, allowing Maples to challenge his conviction.
The Supreme Court in a majority opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that in the extraordinary facts of the case there were sufficient grounds to excuse Maples for missing the deadline.
Ginsburg agreed with the arguments by Maples that the case was more grave that merely attorney oversight, that his attorneys had abandoned him and that no just system could hold him accountable for the error.
"The attorneys Maples thought were vigilantly representing him had abandoned his case. They did not inform Maples or the Alabama court of that reality. Nor did any other lawyer at the New York firm timely seek the Alabama court's permission to serve as substitute counsel," Ginsburg said.
At a critical time, Maples "lacked any clue that he had better fend for himself," she said in announcing the opinion from the bench.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Scalia wrote that the majority opinion "invites future evisceration of the principle that defendants are responsible for the mistakes of their attorneys."
Maples had been supported by civil rights groups, criminal defense attorneys and former Alabama judges while 20 states backed Alabama's argument that his death sentence should be upheld.
The Supreme Court case is Maples v. Thomas, No. 10-63.
(Reporting By James Vicini; Editing by Will Dunham)