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updated 10/4/2011 1:21:04 PM ET 2011-10-04T17:21:04

The U.S. Supreme Court appeared likely Tuesday to order a new court hearing for a death row inmate who lost the chance to appeal his death sentence because of a mailroom mix-up at a venerable New York law firm.

Both conservative and liberal justices indicated they would throw out a federal appeals court ruling that relied on the missed deadline to refuse to consider Cory Maples' claims that he received inadequate legal representation, dating back to his trial on charges he gunned down two friends in 1995.

Justice Samuel Alito, a former federal prosecutor, said he did not understand why the state of Alabama fought so hard to deny Maples the right to appeal when the deadline passed through "no fault of his own."

Justice Antonin Scalia was the only member of the court who appeared to agree with the state's argument that Maples' protests are overblown because he was never left without a lawyer. The state also says the role of Maples' lawyers in missing the deadline is unfortunate but nothing the court should correct under its earlier rulings.

Gregory Garre, a former top government lawyer who is representing Maples in the Supreme Court, said the earlier legal work for Maples was so bad that it violated the U.S. Constitution.

Whatever the shortcomings of Maples' trial lawyers, he appeared to "win the lottery" when two lawyers at Sullivan and Cromwell agreed to represent him for free in his appeals, Garre said. The New York-based firm has 800 lawyers and offices in a dozen cities.

From December 2001 until May 2003 not much happened in the case. But then an Alabama court rejected Maples' claims that were prepared and filed by the firm's lawyers. The court sent a notice to the lawyers, as well as a local attorney in Alabama, starting a 42-day clock for appealing the order.

What neither the court nor Maples knew was that during the previous summer, both lawyers left Sullivan and Cromwell, one for a job in Europe and the other to clerk for a federal judge. The lawyers did not tell Maples or the court they were leaving.

The notices sent to the firm were returned, while the local lawyer did nothing, thinking the New Yorkers were on the case.

The court clerk likewise did nothing when the notices came back indicating the lawyers were no longer at the firm, even though the lawyers' personal telephone numbers and home addresses were in the court's file on Maples.

Justice Elena Kagan asked Alabama Solicitor General John Neiman in an almost mocking tone what the clerk should have done when an important notice in a capital case was returned. "Huh, should I do anything now?" Kagan said.

Garre, who served as the top Supreme Court lawyer for President George W. Bush, says the clerk's inaction in a capital case "defies common sense" and should lead the justices to rule for Maples.

Neiman, bolstered by Scalia, pointed out that the local lawyer did receive the notice, which is enough under Alabama's court rules.

But Chief Justice John Roberts pressed Neiman to tell the high court whether the lawyer did anything on Maples' behalf, other than make it possible for the New York lawyers to represent Maples in Alabama courts.

"You still haven't told me one more thing," an irritated Roberts told Neiman.

Only after the deadline passed did Maples find out what happened — or rather, didn't happen — on his behalf. Other lawyers at Sullivan and Cromwell tried to continue the appeal. The firm did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.

Both state and federal courts ruled that Maples was out of luck.

It was not clear Tuesday how far the court might go on Maples' behalf. The justices could order a lower court to hear his claims that his lawyers were inadequate. But the court also could more narrowly lay out rules for when deadlines may be waived and allow a lower court to decide whether Maples' case qualifies.

In either event, Maples seems likely to get a new hearing before he might have to face execution.

Support for Maples has come from former Alabama judges, the leading civil rights group, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups. Twenty states and a nonprofit group that backs the death penalty are supporting Alabama's call for the high court to uphold the death sentence.

A decision is expected by spring.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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