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The tale of returned mail and a missed deadline might seem comical, if it did not involve a man trying to stave off execution. Supreme Court justices had harsh words Tuesday for lawyers who abandon their clients and a state legal system that does not seem overly concerned.

At the end of a lively hour of arguments, it appeared that the court would order a new hearing for Alabama death row inmate Cory Maples, who lost the chance to appeal his death sentence because of a mailroom mix-up at the venerable New York law firm Sullivan and Cromwell and the diffidence of a local court clerk.

Two Sullivan and Cromwell lawyers were pressing Maples' claim that his earlier legal representation was so bad that it violated the Constitution -- until they both left the firm without telling Maples or the Alabama courts.

Deadlines usually matter a lot at the Supreme Court, where a few years back a defendant who was late to file an appeal because the judge gave his lawyer the wrong date still lost his case. Another principle to which the court often holds dear is that it's tough luck for defendants whose lawyers make mistakes.

But Tuesday's case, perhaps because it involves the death penalty, was the rare instance when the court seemed prepared to grant some leeway on both counts.

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