Right to an Attorney

The case of Corey Maples provides a disturbing look at the death penalty system in the United States and underscores how even people facing execution are often not represented by adequate counsel at any stage of the criminal process. In Maples’s case, the attorneys assigned to represent his appeals quit midway through the process, and yet the state of Alabama blamed Maples for his failure to comply with procedural requirements he had no way of fulfilling. Yesterday, the Supreme Court corrected this obvious mistake by ruling that Maples had a right to appeal in a 7-to-2 decision. But this case will leave the pervasive problem of bad legal representation in our criminal justice system essentially untouched.

The issues that Maples had in finding adequate representation did not start with the appeal that led to the Supreme Court taking up his case. As the Court pointed out, “[a]t trial, he was represented by two appointed lawyers, minimally paid and with scant experience in capital cases.” When Maples appealed his conviction, things got Kafkaesque. The lawyers who had been representing Maples pro bono left the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, and nobody else was assigned to take over his case. The state of Alabama sent a letter to the firm telling Maples that his first appeal had been denied but, since his lawyers had left, the notice was returned unopened. The state, it should be noted, made no effort to resend the document. At this point, Alabama denied Maples’s subsequent appeal because he missed the deadline to file even though he had no way of knowing that the clock was running. Maples appealed, arguing that he could not be blamed for the missed deadline since his lawyers (both the two with the national firm and his local lawyer) had abandoned his case. But an 11th Circuit panel rejected his claim in a two-to-one decision. He appealed to the Supreme Court, where Alabama’s failure to waive the deadline earned the scorn of even some of the Court’s conservative members.

Remarkably, the Court’s decision was not unanimous, with Justice Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissenting. In his opinion, Scalia argues that Maples was, in fact, being represented by legal counsel during the appeals process because other lawyers at the firm had helped with the pro bono case. The theoretical possibility that someone at Sullivan & Cromwell was still secretly working on Maples’s case cannot be taken seriously. The most disturbing part of Scalia’s dissent, however, is his argument that the Court’s decision “invites future evis­ceration of the principle that defendants are responsible for the mistakes of their attorneys.”  Scalia seems to take for granted that reconsidering penalties against defendants for their poor legal representation would be a bad thing. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg found that Maples’s failure to meet the deadline was legally excusable.  “A client cannot be charged with the acts or omissions of an attorney who has abandoned him,” she wrote.

Surely the right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment entails more than being nominally represented by someone who has passed a bar exam somewhere. But Scalia’s defense of the “right” of the state of Alabama to put people to death (even if they’ve never been represented by counsel competent enough or with the necessary resources to properly try a death penalty case) brings up another disturbing precedent set in the 1991 case, Coleman v. Thompson. According to the decision, if Maples’s lawyers missed a deadline because of gross negligence rather than outright abandonment, Maples would have had no legal recourse. The Coleman decision was, as Justice Harry Blackmun wrote in dissent, an example of the Court creating a “Byzantine morass of arbitrary, unnecessary, and unjustifiable impediments to the vindication of federal rights.” In essence, Maples won the right to appeal because the Court recognized that he was at least entitled to legal representation. But had his lawyers just shown up, and done very little else, he would’ve been out of luck. Since the Court’s opinion leaves the Coleman decision undisturbed, it’s unlikely that the Maples case will have much impact going forward.

I do not mean to suggest that Corey Maples is an innocent victim; he is almost certainly guilty of the terrible crimes for which he was convicted. But whether he would have received the death penalty given decent counsel is another question. The fact that Alabama was able to get only the minimum 10 out of 12 jury votes necessary for a death sentence under the state’s procedures strongly suggests that it would have not obtained a death penalty if Maples had received better counsel. This kind of arbitrary application of the death penalty is a serious problem. Defending the inadequate-to-nonexistent counsel that Maples was given throughout the process will ensure that innocent people will be convicted as well. Studies have shown that, even in capital cases, defendants are often represented by lawyers who lack experience with felony cases and the resources to defend clients properly. One study found that “nearly one in four condemned inmates has been represented at trial or on appeal by court-appointed attorneys who have been disciplined for professional misconduct at some point in their careers.” The Court finally gave Maples the appeal he was unfairly denied—but did nothing to solve the broader problems that the majority opinion compellingly identifies.   

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