WASHINGTON — The US Supreme Court Tuesday took up the case of a man on death row who failed to launch an appeal against his sentence in time because his lawyers had left their firm and left no forwarding address.

Cory Maples was sentenced to death by an Alabama court in 1995 for a double murder by a majority jury sentencing of 10-2. Just one more vote in his favor would have spared him from death row.

The sentence was upheld on appeal and by the Alabama supreme court. Maples, with the help of two New York lawyers, argued in a separate post-conviction procedure that his original defense team had been "incoherent and inconsistent."

The original defense had failed to highlight possible mitigating circumstances -- at the time of the events, Maples -- who does not deny the charges -- was high on drugs and alcohol.

But when 18 months later in 2003, Alabama court officials notified his New York lawyers that this separate appeal had failed, the letter was returned stamped "return to sender" as the two lawyers had left the legal firm.

No-one told Maples, who then missed the deadline to file a new appeal.

His current lawyer Gregory Garre told the US Supreme Court that this had been a series of "extraordinary and shocking events," especially in a "capital case when an individual life is at stake."

Maples was not asking to be freed from prison, simply that his case be heard, Garre added.

A lawyer for the state of Alabama, John Neiman, told the nine justices that "the state had no idea that Mr Maples had no representation."

Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito said the case was "a series of very unusual and unfortunate circumstances."

The nation's top court is due to rule before June.