SCOTUS: Attorney Abandonment is Good Procedural Default Excuse

By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 19, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Supreme Court reversed the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals’ Maple v. Thomas decision this week in a 7-2 vote.

The Nine, in an opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, decided that defendant-appellant Cory Maples had demonstrated the requisite cause to overcome procedural default, and was entitled to further review of his ineffective counsel appeal.

Maples was convicted of killing two friends in 1997 after a night of drinking. Maples appealed, claiming that he was represented by ineffective counsel at his trial.

As Alabama is the only state that does not provide taxpayer-funded attorney assistance to death row inmates during appeal, two New York-based attorneys from Sullivan & Cromwell took on Maples' case pro-bono. A third, local attorney, agreed to join Maples' legal team in name only to allow the out-of-state attorneys to represent Maples pro hac vice.

The Sullivan & Cromwell attorneys representing Maples severed their relationships with the firm without notifying the court or Maples. When Alabama sent notice to the firm that Maples' appeal had been denied, the letter was returned. The local attorney, also unaware that the New York attorneys had abandoned Maples, failed to appeal.

Through no fault of his own, Maples missed the deadline for filing another appeal. The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled in 2009 that attorney abandonment was not an excuse that could overcome procedural default in a death penalty appeal in Alabama.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court reversed that decision, finding that "Maples was disarmed by extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control," and that attorney abandonment was "ample cause" to excuse the procedural default.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented in the case, claiming that the decision "invites future evisceration of the principle that defendants are responsible for the mistakes of their attorneys," reports Thomson Reuters News & Insight.

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