In his recent Sidebar column, Adam Liptak, Supreme Court reporter for the New York Times, discussed the plight that Alabama death row inmate Ronald Smith suffered at the hands of a drug-addicted lawyer and an unsympathetic court. In December, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Smith could not challenge his conviction and sentence because his lawyer failed to properly file his post-conviction appeal. However, as Liptak explained, the court did not "place much weight on the fact that the lawyer himself was on probation for public intoxication and addicted to crystal methamphetamine while he was being less than punctilious. In the months that followed, the lawyer would be charged with drug possession, declare bankruptcy and commit suicide." Smith did have a second lawyer, but he was in Tennessee and not authorized to practice in Alabama. Judge Rosemary Barkett (pictured) of the 11th Circuit dissented, saying clients should not be blamed for their lawyers’ mistakes, especially since clients on death row have no role in the selection of their lawyers and have no control over them. “It is unjust and inequitable,” she wrote, “to require death row inmates to suffer the consequences of their attorneys’ negligence.” Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court commented on the quality of Alabama’s death penalty system: “Nearly alone among the states, Alabama does not guarantee representation to indigent capital defendants in post-conviction proceedings. On occasion, some prisoners sentenced to death receive no post-conviction representation at all.” (Maples v. Thomas).
Smith was convicted of murder in 1994, but his divided jury recommended a life sentence. The trial judge overrode the jury and imposed a death sentence. Alabama is one of only three states that allow such overrides.