The United States Supreme Court has granted review in two cases that address the right to counsel in state postconviction proceedings: Maples v. Thomas, an Alabama case in death row prisoner Cory Maples was denied review of his conviction and death sentence in federal court because of mistakes by his volunteer postconviction lawyers; and Martinez v. Ryan, an Arizona case that asks the Court to recognize a right to counsel in postconviction proceedings that are the prisoner’s first chance to raise constitutional claims, like ineffective assistance of trial counsel.
The Court granted review this spring in Maples v. Thomas. Alabama death row prisoner Cory Maples 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, 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, volunteer lawyers from an out-of-state law firm stepped in to provide legal assistance to Cory Maples so that he could challenge his trial lawyer’s poor performance and other claims.
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 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.
In Martinez v. Ryan, an Arizona prisoner was denied the chance to challenge his trial lawyer’s poor performance because his post-conviction lawyer failed to raise the claims. The Court granted review to address whether there should be a constitutionally-recognized right to counsel in postconviction proceedings where postconviction is the first chance to raise constitutional claims such as ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Martinez also argues that his postconviction lawyer’s failure to raise the claims, without notice to him, should not be held against him.
The Court granted review in Martinez on June 6, 2011.
EJI raised a similar question in Barbour v. Haley, a class-action lawsuit that challenged Alabama’s unique failure to provide timely legal assistance in post-conviction capital cases as a violation of the rights to counsel and access to the courts. The Court denied review in Barbour in 2007, but now seems poised to consider whether, at least in some circumstances, there is a constitutional right to counsel in state postconviction proceedings.