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A Dreadful Missed Deadline

Alabama is a step from executing Cory Maples for a reason so grievously wrong that the case argued Tuesday at the Supreme Court should leave no doubt why the death penalty should be abolished. Besides being barbaric, case after case is rife with constitutional defects.

Mr. Maples was convicted of capital murder because he had incompetent trial lawyers, who admitted that they were “stumbling around in the dark.” He was then wrongly denied the chance to even raise the claim of ineffectiveness of counsel on appeal because of a missed court deadline — for which he was utterly blameless.

Alabama insisted that he had lost his right to appeal in state court because of this mistake and, as a result, he could not appeal in federal court either. Inexcusably, the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit agreed. Justice Samuel Alito Jr. asked the state’s attorney: “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?”

The zealotry of the state’s lawyers, Justice Alito and other justices suggested, compounded the undeniable misconduct of lawyers for Mr. Maples, who barely mounted a defense. Two pro bono appellate lawyers from Sullivan & Cromwell worked on Mr. Maples’s postconviction petition for review. But they left the firm without notifying the state court, the clerk’s office or Mr. Maples.

When the state trial court dismissed the petition, two notices went to the firm’s mailroom. Unopened, the notices went back to the court clerk, one marked “Return to Sender — Left Firm.” The clerk had the lawyers’ home phone numbers and addresses but did not try to reach either one. Instead, he simply put the returned letters in an office drawer. He contacted only Mr. Maples’s local lawyer who had no real role in the case. The deadline to appeal passed without Mr. Maples knowing about it.

A former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and other state bar leaders wrote in a brief, “Alabama’s capital punishment system is broken.” It would be grotesquely unjust for Mr. Maples to bear the consequences for the mistake that embodies this breakdown. The justices must order the federal review he seeks.