- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Supreme Court appeared likely Tuesday to order a new court hearing for an Alabama death row inmate who lost the chance to appeal his death sentence because of a mailroom mix-up at a venerable New York law firm.

Both conservative and liberal justices indicated they would throw out a federal appeals court ruling that relied on the missed deadline to refuse to consider Cory Maples‘ claims that he received inadequate legal representation, dating back to his trial on charges he gunned down two friends in 1995.

Justice Samuel Alito, a former federal prosecutor, said he did not understand why Alabama fought so hard to deny Maples the right to appeal when the deadline passed “though no fault of his own.”

Justice Antonin Scalia was the only member of the court who appeared to agree with the state’s argument that Maples‘ protests are overblown because he was never left without a lawyer. The state also says the role of Maples‘ lawyers in missing the deadline is unfortunate but nothing the court should correct under its earlier rulings.

Gregory Garre, a former solicitor general who is representing Maples in the Supreme Court, said the earlier legal work for Maples was so bad that it violated the Constitution.

Whatever the shortcomings of Maples‘ trial lawyers, he appeared to “win the lottery” when two lawyers at Sullivan and Cromwell agreed to represent him for free in his appeals, Mr. Garre said. The New York-based firm has 800 lawyers and offices in a dozen cities.

From December 2001 until May 2003 not much happened in the case. But then an Alabama court rejected Maples‘ claims that were prepared and filed by the firm’s lawyers. The court sent a notice to the lawyers, as well as a local attorney in Alabama, starting a 42-day clock for appealing the order.

What neither the court nor Maples knew was that during the previous summer, both lawyers left Sullivan and Cromwell, one for a job in Europe and the other to clerk for a federal judge. The lawyers didn’t tell Maples or the court they were leaving.

The notices sent to the firm were returned, while the local lawyer did nothing, thinking the New Yorkers were on the case.

The court clerk likewise did nothing when the notices came back indicating the lawyers were no longer at the firm, even though the lawyers’ personal telephone numbers and home addresses were in the court’s file on Maples.

It was not clear Tuesday how far the court might go on Maples‘ behalf. The justices could order a lower court to hear his claims that his lawyers were inadequate. But the court also could more narrowly lay out rules for when deadlines may be waived and allow a lower court to decide whether Maples‘ case qualifies.

In either event, Maples seems likely to get a new hearing before he might have to face execution.

Among other cases heard Tuesday, the justices seemed split on whether to require police to read prison inmates their Miranda rights when they question them about crimes unrelated to their incarceration. The high court heard arguments from Michigan lawyers who want a federal appeals court decision overturned.

Randall Lee Fields was in prison on disorderly conduct charges. Guards took him from his cell to a room where he was questioned by police on a sexual assault. But the police never read him his Miranda rights, and after he was convicted federal judges threw it out.