TUPELO • A state appeals court has ruled against a Tishomingo County man who claimed that he was deprived of his constitutional right to a speedy trial after waiting in prison over three years.

Brian Berryman, now 58, was arrested in February 2017 on a variety of charges and convicted in June 2020 for possessing a firearm as a felon. He was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual offender.

Attorneys for the state acknowledge, that after his indictment, Berryman was in custody at a south Mississippi prison but not arraigned and formally presented with his indictment for almost 400 days because he was “out of sight, out of mind.”

Later trial delays were caused by a rotating cast of public defenders assigned to Berryman, illness by a judge and the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, a majority of seven judges on the State Court of Appeals said that “it took far too long to bring this case to trial,” but ruled that the delay did not actually damage Berryman’s ability to offer a defense when a trial finally did occur.

Trial delays of the sort Berryman experienced are not uncommon in Mississippi. Many components of the state’s criminal justice system are at fault, according to an interview earlier this year with Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center at the University of Mississippi School of Law.

“People are stuck in pre-trial detention and folks forget about them,” Johnson said. “Courts aren’t pushing the cases, DAs aren’t pushing the cases, public defenders are only dealing with the case that is right in front of them, the trial they have next week.”

Majority ruling garnered dissent

Two judges partially concurred and partially dissented from the majority opinion, discounting the speedy trial claim but finding merit to an argument that Berryman’s indictment was defective due to insufficient clarity about the penalties he faced.

One judge — David Neil McCarty — fully dissented from the majority.

“The right to a speedy trial should be treated no less and no more than our sacred rights to speak our minds or to bear arms in defense of our homes, or our right to even have a trial should we be arrested,” McCarty wrote in his dissent. “We should not allow a constitutional right to be fumbled away by bureaucracy and confusion, as it was in this case. Nor should its deprivation be used to oppress our citizens.”

McCarty’s dissent largely focused on the fact that, at his 2020 trial, Circuit Judge Kelly Mims did dismiss one of the charges against Berryman.

Mims found that the more than three-year delay between his arrest and his trial impaired Berryman’s ability to bring a defense against allegations that he shot into a dwelling in the Goat Island area of Tishomingo County. However, Mims did allow the felon-in-possession charge to proceed.

McCarty offered the view that finding a speedy-trial violation linked to one count of the indictment required dismissal of the entire indictment.

Berryman also facing prison time on parole violation

Berryman was convicted in 1990 on capital murder, later paroled and had violated his terms at the time of his 2017 arrest in Tishomingo County.

The Appeals Court majority therefore took into account that the delay in trial did not impose needless or otherwise avoidable incarceration on Berryman.

“Berryman would have been incarcerated at all relevant times regardless of any delays in the prosecution of this case,” the court majority wrote.

Mississippi courts historically not receptive to speedy trial claims

Berryman’s appeal of his 2020 conviction was heard in May 2021 before a three-judge panel of the state Appeals Court.

The right to a speedy trial is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. Supreme Court has established a four-part test to determine when this speedy-trial guarantee has been violated.

Mississippi state law also protects the right to a speedy trial. Tuesday’s ruling on the Berryman appeal comes even as lawyers largely view speedy trial claims as facing an uphill battle, whether on a federal or state law basis.

“The Mississippi Supreme Court in recent years and decades hasn’t indicated a willingness to strictly enforce the speedy trial act, so I think there’s a perception out there that speedy trial motions will not be well received,” Johnson said earlier this year.

Recommended for you

comments powered by Disqus