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Supreme Court Gives Death Row Inmate Another Chance

It happens all the time - something gets lost in the mail. However, it is seldom a life-and-death matter. For an Alabama death row inmate who missed a filing deadline because of a mailroom mix-up at his attorney's New York law firm, a recent Supreme Court ruling on the subject gives this convicted murderer another chance.

The ruling allows lower federal courts to consider the inmate's appeal that his trial attorneys were ineffective.

The comedy of errors began when two lawyers from Sullivan & Cromwell neglected to tell the defendant that they had left the firm. Moreover, they did not tell the court from which they expected a ruling in the case. Finally, when the ruling arrived at the firm, it was returned to the court unopened.

Justice Ginsburg, writing for the majority, criticized the Alabama pay rate for court-appointed lawyers. At the time of the original trial, attorneys in capital cases received $40 per hour when in court and $20 per hour when not in court. The state had a $1,000 cap on out-of-court work. The inexperienced, overworked and underpaid lawyers made several mistakes, according to Justice Ginsburg's opinion: failing to develop an intoxication defense, failing to object to obvious instances of prosecutorial misconduct and unable to prepare adequately for the penalty phase of the trial. The lawyers even apologized to the jury for their lack of preparation.

New Jersey salaries for public defenders are significantly higher than the national average, with the public employee benefit packages reducing the employee turnover characteristic of these entry-level legal positions.

Source: New York Times, "Justices Rule for Inmate After Mailroom Mix-Up", by Adam Liptak, Jan. 18, 2012.

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