Washington (CNN) -- The Supreme Court appeared inclined Tuesday to give an Alabama death row prisoner another chance to appeal his conviction after a mailroom mistake left him unable to pursue further claims in court.
At issue is whether a missed deadline to file a key appeal is justification to grant Cory Maples a second chance, when the error was not the inmate's fault, and the result would mean a punishment as serious as lethal injection. The compounding series of errors and negligence involved both state officials and the private attorneys representing him.
His new legal team, supported by some civil rights groups, says the criminal justice system has been turned on its head by allowing prisoners to suffer the consequences of their lawyers' mistakes or incompetence.
But state attorneys argue that long-established rules on filing often complex paperwork must be strictly enforced, to ensure that all parties -- including the courts -- get a proper chance to hear the claims in an orderly fashion. And the state says that in this case, Maples' initial appellate attorneys were from a blue-chip law firm in New York.
Several justices expressed concern the inmate was not being treated fairly.
"Mr. Maples has lost his right to appeal through no fault of his own, through a series of very unusual and unfortunate circumstances," said Justice Samuel Alito. "Now, when his attorneys moved to file an out-of-time appeal, why wouldn't you just consent to that? If he did not receive an effective assistance of counsel at trial, why not give a decision on the merits of that? Why push this technical argument?"
Maples was convicted in the 1995 murder of two companions, Stacy Alan Terry and Barry Dewayne Robinson II, with whom he had been drinking heavily. Court records showed that Maples took a .22-caliber rifle in his Decatur, Alabama, home and shot both men twice in the head, execution-style. He later confessed to police but offered no explanation for the crimes. The defendant was convicted, and the jury recommended the death sentence by a vote of 10-2.
Post-conviction, two attorneys from the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell -- working on behalf of Maples for free -- filed a motion in an Alabama court, claiming ineffective assistance by the trial defense. The chain of errors may have begun when the appellate lawyers did not list the name of their firm in the papers filed in Alabama.
When that court later sent two copies of its ruling denying the motion to the New York-based attorneys, the mailroom inexplicably sent them back unopened. Both envelopes were labeled "Return to Sender -- Left Firm" and similar language: "Return to Sender -- Attempted Not Known."
Both lawyers had, in fact, left the firm, but no notice of new legal representation at the same firm was given to either the court or to Maples himself. A local lawyer in Alabama not heavily involved in the appeals also received the initial ruling, but he, too, did not follow up to ensure that the New York lawyers continued the necessary filings.
By the time the mix-up was discovered, apparently thanks to inquiries by the inmate's mother, Maples' window for appeals had run out.
The local judge was not sympathetic, saying the county clerk was not required to follow up or investigate why the key documents were sent back without acknowledgment.
"How can a circuit court clerk in Decatur, Alabama, know what is going on in a law firm in New York, N.Y.?" Morgan County Circuit Judge Glenn Thompson asked in his ruling.
Subsequent state and federal courts also refused to grant Maples another chance to file his appeals, saying the 42-day deadline was standard and non-negotiable.
During arguments Tuesday, the questions came down to who shouldered most of the blame: the county clerk or Maples' lawyers? Justice Antonin Scalia was particularly animated, speaking 50 times in the 60-minute argument, and favoring the state's position. He said it was the obligation of the local attorney to ensure his out-of-state colleagues had all the paperwork.
"He failed to check with the New York lawyers who were working with him," Scalia said. "Why is the state responsible for that?"
But a majority of his colleagues questioned the Alabama solicitor general's position.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted that after the deadline to appeal had passed, the local prosecutor had sent a letter just to Maples -- and none of his lawyers -- notifying him he had just lost the case in an Alabama court.
"So the state's attorney must have thought that Maples had been abandoned by his lawyers because he didn't notify any of them" about losing, and about his right to appeal in federal court, Ginsburg said.
"Of course, he didn't have to send the letter. That letter had no legal effect, did it?" interjected Scalia, suggesting the state notice to Maples was a simple courtesy.
Not so fast, said Chief Justice John Roberts. "Why did he do it, then? Just gloating that the fellow had lost? What was the point of it? He must have thought there was a problem, right?"
"If Maples shows that the letter came back, and shows this was abandonment or close thereto, then the state ought to know that this individual had no idea about filing a piece of paper, and thinks somebody else is doing it," said Justice Stephen Breyer. "And that's enough to say this is not adequate state ground that would block" Maples from continuing his appeals.
Justice Elena Kagan was more blunt: "The notice inquiry (by the state) is supposed to be a pragmatic one," she said, citing past precedent. "The question that we are supposed to ask ourselves is: Is this what somebody would do if they actually wanted to accomplish notice, if they actually wanted the person to get that letter. ... So you (the state) send off this letter and you get it back (unopened) from the principal attorneys, and you ask yourself: 'Huh, should I do anything now?'"
Because so much of the facts and testimony of the various parties remains in question -- particularly the actions of the county clerk and the in-state attorney for Maples -- the justices appeared likely to throw the case back to a lower court to sort out the matter.
Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman made clear to the court, "Maples is unquestionably guilty of murdering two people, and his conviction is now 15 years old. He has received some sort of judicial review of every claim he has made."
Sullivan & Cromwell employs about 800 lawyers, charges premium client rates, and does significant pro bono work on behalf of a variety of indigent prisoners. The firm is more than 130 years old.
Among the 34 states with the death penalty, Alabama alone does not automatically give all its 200 or so current capital inmates taxpayer-funded legal assistance to file papers challenging their convictions, sentences and lethal punishment. Big firms like Sullivan & Cromwell often step in and tackle the often long and expensive appeals process.
Lawyers for Maples say that such missed deadlines -- whatever the reasons -- have occurred before and that some flexibility should be built into the system, especially when it involves crucial constitutional issues like habeas corpus and the death penalty.
"It's really an almost unthinkable situation, and anyone, even the most ardent supporters of capital punishment, ought to be concerned about the result in this case and should not want a decision allowing a man to be executed in these circumstances, because that can only erode public confidence in the system of capital punishment," attorney Gregory Garre told CNN in a recent interview.
The case is Maples v. Thomas (10-63). A ruling is expected in a few months.