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Supreme Court rules for Alabama death row inmate 'abandoned' by lawyers

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court rarely gives criminal defendants a second chance if they miss a deadline to file an appeal, but the justices did so Wednesday in the case of an Alabama death row inmate, citing a "perfect storm" of missing lawyers and unopened letters.

Cory Maples, convicted of killing two people in Alabama, was "abandoned" by his lawyers and lost his right to appeal because of "extraordinary circumstances quite beyond his control," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said.

Alabama is one of the few states that do not pay for lawyers to represent death row inmates in their appeals, Ginsburg noted. Private law firms often take on their work as volunteers. Maples may have thought he was lucky when two attorneys from the New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell agreed to represent him.

The two New York attorneys filed an initial claim, asserting that Maples' trial lawyer failed him by not arguing that he was intoxicated when he shot and killed two friends after a night of heavy drinking.

But 18 months later, when an Alabama judge rejected his initial appeal, the two New York lawyers had left their firm to take other jobs. They did not notify Maples, the judge or a local lawyer listed on the appeals. Copies of the judge's order sent to the New York firm were returned by the mail room unopened. As a result, the 42-day deadline for Maples to appeal this ruling passed by.

Alabama prosecutors said Maples had "defaulted" by missing the deadline. The Alabama Supreme Court and the U.S. Appeals Court in Atlanta agreed, saying Maples lost his chance to appeal because of his lawyers' mistakes.

In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court said Maples deserves a right to appeal his conviction.

Telemarketers can be sued in federal court: The Supreme Court is keeping telemarketers and other businesses on the hook for nuisance phone calls, letting those annoyed by the disruptions sue in federal as well as state courts.

The high court's decision Wednesday involves a lawsuit claiming a debt collector harassed a man with repeated recorded calls. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had thrown out the case, saying Congress did not explicitly give permission for federal lawsuits in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. The high court said in a unanimous opinion that federal lawsuits are allowed under the law.

The case now goes back to the appeals court in Atlanta.

Information from Associated Press was used in this report.

Supreme Court rules for Alabama death row inmate 'abandoned' by lawyers 01/18/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2012 10:42pm]
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