McGuireWoods’ Appellate Justice Initiative Wins New Hearing for Mentally Ill Inmate

October 5, 2023

Working as part of McGuireWoods’ Appellate Justice Initiative, Charlotte associate Kelly Warlich and partner Brad Kutrow recently won a new hearing for a mentally ill inmate in Virginia who filed a federal habeas petition seeking to have his 2007 murder convictions vacated.

The decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals entitles Berman Justus Jr. to an evidentiary hearing to determine whether his mental illness constitutes an “extraordinary circumstance” that justifies relief from the statute of limitations governing his habeas petition.

Justus was convicted of capital murder and other charges in Greene County, Virginia, in 2007. The trial court rejected his insanity defense but cited his “severe mental illness” as a mitigating factor in declining to impose the death penalty. Justus appealed the trial court’s rejection of his insanity defense, but the Virginia Court of Appeals denied his petition. Justus later learned that crucial pages of the trial transcript were omitted from his petition to the Virginia Court of Appeals and that no subsequent appeal was filed with the Supreme Court of Virginia.

After Justus’ state habeas petitions were dismissed, a federal district court dismissed his 2013 habeas petition as untimely and for failure to present arguments in support of equitable tolling. Five years later, the same court rejected his petition for reconsideration on the ground that his mental health disabilities prevented him from effectively petitioning for habeas relief.

With the help of lawyers in McGuireWoods’ Appellate Justice Initiative, Justus appealed the U.S. district court’s ruling. On Aug. 15, 2023, the 4th Circuit ruled that Justus’ motion was timely filed and that he must be granted an evidentiary hearing on whether his mental illness entitles him to equitable tolling of the statute of limitations governing his habeas petition.

Given the client’s “evidence and allegations of his severe and continuing mental illness, this case strikes us as one that likely ‘cries out for the exercise of that equitable power to do justice,’ ” the 4th Circuit ruled.

Warlich argued the case before the 4th Circuit, and Kutrow assisted with briefing.

McGuireWoods’ Appellate Justice Initiative includes dozens of volunteer lawyers, paralegals and professional staff dedicated to protecting the rights of criminal defendants by identifying and challenging practices that infringe on the constitutional rights of defendants — especially those affected by racial disparities in the criminal justice system.