Today the United States Supreme Court decided to review the case of Cory Maples, who has been denied review of his conviction and death sentence because of a mistake in a law firm mailroom.
Unlike every other state in the country that uses the death penalty, Alabama does not provide legal assistance to death row inmates to challenge the inadequate representation they received at trial or other aspects of their conviction or sentence in postconviction proceedings. Many death row prisoners must rely on volunteer legal assistance provided by out-of-state law firms.
Volunteer lawyers from an out-of-state law firm stepped in to provide legal assistance to Cory Maples so that he could challenge a potentially wrongful conviction and unconstitutional sentence. 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.
The Supreme Court must now decide whether the mailroom’s mistake can be held against Mr. Maples so as to deny him review of his constitutional claims.
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. By providing a dramatic example of the consequences of Alabama’s refusal to provide competent postconviction counsel to death row prisoners, the case also underscores the complexity of postconviction practice in capital cases and the urgent need for additional legal assistance.
In another case, the Supreme Court recently held that, when notice that the government plans to sell a home for unpaid taxes is returned unopened, officials must try harder to reach the owner, particularly when “the subject matter of the letter concerns such an important and irreversible prospect as the loss of a house.” Mr. Maples’s petition asks the Court to apply that same logic to the failure to deliver a letter that could cost him his life.