Tag: capital punishment

Notice of Court Orders Is Important in Death Penalty Cases

The representation of prisoners accused of capital crimes is unique in its difficulty – and in the consequences – when that representation is inadequate. Maples v. Thomas, which will be argued before the Supreme Court this fall, exposes some of the serious cracks in the system charged with representing indigent defendants in such cases.   

Cato takes no position on the merits of the death penalty other than that the Constitution does not prohibit it and that our justice system is responsible for, at the very least, ensuring that prisoners receive fair notice of orders on which their lives depend.  Both the courts and counsel failed Cory Maples here. 

Maples was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for killing two companions.  After a series of state court appeals which affirmed his conviction, Maples filed a petition for post-conviction relief, which was ultimately dismissed. 

Maples never received notice of this deadline-triggering order because his pro bono lawyers left their big-firm jobs and a court clerk did nothing when the letter containing the order was consequently returned unopened.  Because Maples did not receive notice of the deadline, he did not timely file an appeal and his claims were procedurally defaulted.  The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s denial of Maples’s subsequent federal habeas petition because Maples “cannot establish cause for his default because there is no right to post-conviction counsel.” 

Cato has now joined The Constitution Project to file an amicus brief supporting Maples and arguing that the Supreme Court should excuse his default because the state failed to notify him of an order that could result in his death.  Moreover, if the default is not excused, the state’s inaction will deny Maples his constitutional right of meaningful access to the courts. 

The Eleventh Circuit relied on the rule that because “there is no constitutional right to an attorney in state post-conviction proceedings, a petitioner cannot claim constitutionally ineffective counsel in such proceedings.”  But Maples’s habeas claim does not involve the ineffectiveness of his post-conviction counsel; his underlying claim is that his trial counsel provided ineffective assistance. Indeed, his post-conviction counsel provided no assistance whatsoever when it was time to appeal. 

Finally, there is cause to excuse Maples’s default because this case is ultimately governed by principles of equity and basic fairness.  Few if any reasonable observers would conclude that it is fair or equitable to put a man to death without allowing the least consideration of appellate claims that could save his life simply because his lawyers left their jobs, a firm mailroom returned letters to them unopened, and the court clerk’s office did nothing when it discovered that crucial notice was never received. 

Again, the case is Maples v. Thomas and you can read Cato’s brief here.

Bad Science and Capital Punishment

Radley Balko will be moderating a panel at Georgetown Law next week, “Bad Science: The Execution of Cameron Todd Willingham and the Case for Forensic Reform.”

Radley will be leading a discussion about the case of Willingham, who was executed by the state of Texas in 2004. Willingham was convicted in 1992 of murdering his three young daughters in a house fire that the state determined was arson.

A report issued in 2009 claimed that in convicting Willingham, the state used techniques and assumptions that were no longer recognized as scientifically valid and that the original finding of arson could not be sustained.

If you can’t attend in person, a webcast will be available.

Red Team, Blue Team

In a report on Attorney General Eric Holder’s approach to seeking the death penalty, NPR reports:

A few months after Holder made that statement, he authorized a capital prosecution in Vermont, a state that does not have the death penalty. When Ashcroft brought a federal death penalty case in Vermont seven years ago, the mayor of Burlington called it “an affront to states’ rights” and “not consistent with the values of a majority of Vermonters.” But this time, there was hardly any outcry.

So the former antiwar movement doesn’t complain about President Obama’s expansion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And opponents of capital punishment don’t protest the Obama administration’s seeking the death penalty in liberal Vermont. It’s beginning to look a lot like the Bush years, when conservatives put up with a great deal from a Republican administration that would have sent them into apoplexy if it had been done by Democrats.