Washington (CNN) -- The Supreme Court will decide whether a mailroom mistake was sufficient reason for a death row inmate's appeals to be rejected.
On Monday, the justices accepted the petition of convicted murderer Cory Maples. Oral arguments will probably be held in October.
At issue is whether a missed deadline to file a key appeal is justification to grant Maples a second chance, when the error was not the inmate's and the result would mean a punishment as serious as lethal injection.
His new attorneys, supported by some civil rights groups, say 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 by 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' appellate attorneys were from the blue-chip law firm Sullivan & Cromwell.
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 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 company, but no notice was given to the court of new legal representation at the same firm. A local lawyer in Alabama also received the initial ruling, but he too did not follow up to ensure that the New York lawyers continued the necessary appeals.
By the time the mixup was discovered, apparently thanks to the inmate's mother's inquiries, Maples' 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, Ala. 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.
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 201 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 and the death penalty.
They point to a 2006 high court ruling by Chief Justice John Roberts involving an Arkansas man whose home was sold by the state because of delinquent taxes.
"In this case, the state is exerting extraordinary power -- taking and selling a house. It is not too much to insist that the state do a bit more to attempt to let (a homeowner) know about it when the notice letter addressed to him is returned unclaimed," Roberts said in ruling for the homeowner. "Additional reasonable" steps must be taken to ensure the local resident received proper notice.
The current high court case from Alabama is Maples v. Thomas (10-63).