Mississippi man seeks new trial after saying system wrongfully kept him in jail for year awaiting hearing

Published 10:09 am Sunday, July 25, 2021

A Mississippi man serving a life sentence for being a habitual offender is appealing his punishment, saying the seven months he spent in jail without an indictment and year it took to arraign him violated his right to a speedy trial.

Brian Berryman’s appeal of his 2020 conviction was heard by the Mississippi State Court of Appeals in May, the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal reported.

Berryman is serving a life sentence for the February 2017 conviction on a firearm possession by a felon charge. He was out on parole at the time for a 1990 murder and armed robbery convictions.

But after Berryman’s arrest it took 211 days for him to be indicted and an additional 399 days before he was arraigned even though he was in jail the whole time.

“I can go on the (state prison) website and figure out, just myself, where a prisoner is, you don’t need an investigator to go find him,” Judge Jack Wilson said during Berryman’s appeal hearing. “I’m having a hard time. Isn’t it gross negligence? It isn’t just negligence, is it?”

The Attorney General’s Office is arguing that the delays aren’t enough to overturn Berryman’s conviction.

The justices have not ruled on the case.

Berryman was also originally charged with shooting into a dwelling, but the judge at his trial dropped that charge after one of Berryman’s witnesses died, saying the long wait for a trial harmed his opportunity to defend himself.

Even if Berryman’s most recent conviction is overturned, he will likely remain in jail because his parole has been revoked and prosecutors said he is facing unrelated rape charges in Tennessee.

Berryman appeared to fall through the cracks also because of problems with lawyers. His original public defender was elected to be a judge and had to quit the case. The second attorney appointed bowed out after realizing he prosecuted Berryman’s 1990 murder conviction. His third lawyer was a state lawmaker who struggled to find time for the case.

Berryman’s case shows how Mississippi’s criminal justice system struggles with a lack of money for defense attorneys for the poor and prosecutors who don’t emphasize speedy trials.

“People get stuck in pre-trial detention, and folks forget about them,” said Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Center for Justice at the University of Mississippi Law School. “We see miscarriages of justice where people are just stuck in jail without an avenue to a courtroom or a lawyer or an advocate.”