Thursday, January 26, 2012

Capital Habeas Petitioner Established He Was Abandoned by his Counsel and Cause for Default

Maples v. Thomas, 2012 WL 125438 (1/18/12) - This case shows that if circumstances are extreme enough even the S. Ct. will take pity on a capital habeas petitioner at least by a 7-2 vote. In this case, the petitioner procedurally defaulted his claims when no timely notice of appeal of a state district court habeas denial was filed. The petitioner's pro bono lawyers quit their firm, but did not tell the court or the petitioner that they had. The court sent news of the denial to the firm and local Alabama counsel. The firm's mail room sent the notice back without opening the envelope. The court clerk did nothing when it was returned. The local counsel did nothing because he had made it clear to the firm lawyers that he would leave everything about the case up to them. The S. Ct. held the petitioner had established cause for the default because his attorneys had abandoned him, but he did not learn of their abandonment until it was too late to appeal. These facts saved the case from application of the usual rule that neglect by habeas counsel is not enough to establish cause.

Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented on the grounds that the firm and local counsel were technically still representing the petitioner. This decision will lead every clever habeas petitioner to claim that her/his habeas attorney performed so badly that the attorney had abandoned the petitioner. The flood gates will open. Also interesting is the majority spent several pages noting how pathetic the Alabama capital counsel system is. At the time of the defendant's trial, capital trial counsel needed no particular expertise, and were paid $40 an hour capped at $1,000 per case. There is no provision for appointed habeas counsel in capital cases in Alabama.