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Death by Returned Letter? Court Hears Maples v. Thomas

By Robyn Hagan Cain on October 06, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Can a death warrant be signed, “Return to Sender?” The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Maple v. Thomas, an Alabama death penalty appeal, on Tuesday to decide whether a procedural default in an inmate’s death penalty appeal can be excused.

The plaintiff, Cory Maples, was convicted of killing two friends in 1997 after a night of drinking. Maples claimed that he was plagued by ineffective counsel at his trial, and on he went to appeal.

Alabama is the only state that does not provide government-funded counsel to death-row inmates, so Maples had a local attorney, (in name only), and two New York attorneys from Sullivan and Cromwell who offered to do the real work pro bono, reports Slate. The attorneys, however, left the firm without notifying the court or Maples. When Alabama sent the lawyers notice that Maples' appeal had been denied, the envelope was marked "Return to Sender" and sent back to Alabama.

Maples' attorney in Alabama received a notice, but thought the New Yorkers were still handling the case.

A court clerk filed the returned letter from New York.

Maples missed the 42-day deadline for filing another appeal, and forfeited his appeal through procedural default.

Maples' new attorney, former Solicitor General Gregory Garre, claims that Maples should not be penalized because his attorneys abandoned him. (Interesting aside: Sullivan and Cromwell, perhaps suffering from a guilty conscience, is standing by Maples. The firm hired Garre to represent Maples.)

Will Maples win a new trial in the Supreme Court? Based on Tuesday's oral arguments, he could. The Justices seemed concerned that Alabama was not willing to waive the deadline for Maples' appeal, reports The New York Times. What do you think? Will the Court find that a mailing mix-up warrants execution?

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