U.S. Supreme Court Hears Alabama Case Where Mailroom Mistake Cost Death Row Inmate His Appeals


The Supreme Court heard oral argument yesterday in the case of Alabama death row prisoner Cory Maples, who was denied review of his claims in federal court after a mixup in the mailroom of the law firm that volunteered to represent him in state postconviction proceedings.

Because, alone among death-penalty states, Alabama does not provide legal assistance to death row inmates to challenge their conviction or sentence in postconviction proceedings, lawyers from an out-of-state law firm volunteered to provide legal assistance to Cory Maples.

When the trial court denied Mr. Maples’s postconviction petition, notice of the denial was sent to the law firm, where the mailroom returned it as undeliverable. The court clerk did not notify Mr. Maples, and by the time he and his counsel learned about the ruling, the time limit for filing an appeal had passed.

Alabama prosecutors and state judges said Mr. Maples was barred from further appeals because he had “defaulted,” even though he did not know about his lawyers’ mistake. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

At yesterday’s oral argument, however, justices questioned the State’s strict reliance on a technical rule to bar appeals in this death penalty case. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said he did not understand why Alabama prosecutors did not allow Mr. Maples to appeal once they learned what happened. “Mr. Maples has lost his right to appeal through no fault of his own, through a series of very unusual and unfortunate circumstances,” Alito said.

“If Maples shows that the letter came back, and shows [that his lawyers abandoned him], then the state ought to know that this individual had no idea about filing a piece of paper, and thinks somebody else is doing it,” said Justice Stephen Breyer. “And that’s enough to say this is not adequate” to block Mr. Maples from continuing his appeals.

The case raises important issues about the reliability of the death penalty where arbitrary events like a mailroom mix-up may bar postconviction review of a death row inmate’s claims.