Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled as it often has in the past on a death penalty case. In this case it was a death row inmate whose lawyers had essentially abandoned him during the appeals process. NPR gives a good overview of the case:
The U.S. Supreme Court has given an Alabama death row inmate another chance to fight his execution. By a 7-to-2 vote, the court ruled Wednesday that convicted murderer Cory Maples, “through no fault of his own,” was denied the right to appeal because he was abandoned by his lawyers.
Though I strongly support the death penalty, I think it is critical that those who face it get every opportunity to have competent representation and the full range of appeals available by law. I don’t in fact know how someone who supports the death penalty could think otherwise unless they are just completely indifferent to the lives of other human beings. My concern though is not merely a procedural one, but a personal one. As someone who worked on death penalty appeal that went to the Supreme Court (STATE of Louisiana vs. John L. SULLIVAN), I know that the system occasionally fails to deliver justice to defendants.
In what may be a unique occurrence, I particularly agree with Justice Ginsburg’s argument in this case:
The sole question this Court has taken up for review is whether, on the extraordinary facts of Maples’ case, there is “cause” to excuse the default. Maples maintains that there is, for the lawyers he believed to be vigilantly representing him had abandoned the case without leave of court, without informing Maples they could no longer represent him, and without securing any recorded substitution of counsel. We agree. Abandoned by counsel, Maples was left unrepresented at a critical time for his state post conviction petition, and he lacked a clue of any need to protect himself pro se. In these circumstances, no just system would lay the default at Maples’ death-cell door.
The death penalty has an important purpose in a just society, even with the human pitfalls and limitations our judicial system presents. But when the court focuses merely on technicalities and procedure, it can miss justice.
And that would be a tragedy by any measure.