The Death Penalty and Inadequate Counsel

As Dahlia Lithwick and Adam Liptak note, yesterday the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that caused even John Roberts and Samuel Alito to question a state's behavior in a death-penalty case. Cory Maples, who was convicted of murder in Alabama, had the appeal of his death sentence denied because of a missed deadline. This failure was not, however, his fault. The state had sent a letter to the national law firm representing him telling him his first appeal had been denied (which meant that the clock on the next deadline was started), but since his lawyers had left the firm the notice was returned to the state of Alabama unopened. The state made no effort to resend the document. Despite the fact that neither he nor his lawyers were aware of the initial denial (in large part because of the state's actions), the state denied his subsequent appeal because he missed the deadline. As Lithwick explains, even the court's conservatives found the unwillingness of Alabama to waive the deadline requirement in light of these circumstances baffling:

Alito has had enough. “Mr. Maples has lost his right to appeal through no fault of his own, through a series of very unusual and unfortunate circumstances. Now, when his attorneys moved to file an out-of-time appeal, why wouldn't you just consent to that? If he did not receive effective assistance of counsel at trial, why not give a decision on the merits of that?”

Roberts questions Neiman on what it is that Maples’ local counsel, Butler, ostensibly did in the case to suggest he was actively involved. When Neiman can’t produce an answer, Roberts retorts: “You still haven't told me one thing he did more than move the admission of the out-of-town attorneys.” Neiman looks distressed.

Maples almost certainly committed the crime for which he was convicted. But whether he would have received the death penalty with adequate counsel is another matter. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg has put it, "People who are well represented at trial do not get the death penalty," and this would seem to be a case in point. And to believe that a system in which many states are indifferent to whether defendants have adequate counsel won't produce more serious errors is to believe in unicorns and ice cream castles in the air.