Who Cares If Your Lawyer Abandons You on Death Row?

Mother Jones blogger Adam Serwer looks at a Supreme Court case in which an Alabama inmate was abandoned by his attorney. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were indifferent.


In a blog entry at Mother Jones, Adam Serwer reviews a Supreme Court case in which an Alabama inmate appeals a lower court’s decision to deny his appeal, arguing that he was abandoned by his lawyers. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor, but Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, saying it could set a bad precedent.

After Cory Maples was convicted of two murders in Alabama in 1997 and sentenced to death, he appealed his conviction claiming that he’d received shoddy legal representation, what’s technically known as ineffective assistance of counsel. Two attorneys from Sullivan & Cromwell, a prestigious law firm in New York, agreed to represent him …

… By securing free representation from two attorneys from a hotshot New York law firm, Maples must have thought he had a decent chance in court. A dream come true, right?

Didn’t turn out that way. The two attorneys, Jaasai Munanka and Clara Ingen-Housz, left the firm in 2002, in the middle of Maples’ appeal process. They didn’t tell Maples that they were leaving, or that they weren’t going to be involved in his case anymore. They didn’t even tell the court in Alabama. So when the court denied Maples’ appeal in 2003, he had no idea …

… The lower courts rejected Maples’ pleas for another chance to file an appeal, despite the conduct of his attorneys. But on Wednesday, the Supreme Court reversed that decision by a vote of 7 to 2, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing a dissent joined by Clarence Thomas. Their argument? If you allow Maples to file an appeal despite missing the original deadline because he was abandoned by his attorneys, then defense attorneys all over the country could argue that their clients had been effectively unrepresented at one point or another, gambling on the possibility that the big-hearted, black-robed softies on the Supreme Court would overlook any procedural errors that might have been made during their appeals …

Read Adam Serwer’s entire blog entry at Mother Jones.