John D. Justice, the Kenmore man now nearing the end of nearly 30 years in prison for killing his parents, brother and neighbor in 1985, may not be a free man when his sentence is completed. The state Office of Mental Health has begun legal proceedings for Justice to be declared mentally unfit for release when his prison term expires in 2015.
“OMH wants Justice declared as having a dangerous mental disease or disorder that makes him a threat to society and requires that he be confined after he completes his maximum prison sentence,” a state official familiar with the case told The Buffalo News.
Defense Attorney John R. Nuchereno said the now 44-year-old Justice is a highly intelligent individual who suffers from mental illness.
“He functions with high intellect, which runs parallel to a devastating mental disease,” Nuchereno said.
The mental health office has refused to comment on the Justice case because of federal privacy laws governing the medical records of individuals.
But The Buffalo News has confirmed that the state attorney general’s staff, on behalf of the mental health office, has filed legal papers seeking a criminal hearing in front of State Supreme Court Judge M. William Boller in Buffalo to continue state custody of Justice.
If the state is successful, Justice would be admitted to a secure state-run psychiatric facility and re-evaluated approximately every five years to determine if he has recovered from his mental illness and is eligible for release, according to an attorney familiar with the case.
“It’s been a long and tragic case, and I leave it to the assigned attorney to work with the client and the doctors to deal with whatever legal proceeding the individual is facing,” said attorney Emmett Creahan, director of state’s Mental Hygiene Legal Service for the Western New York Region.
Vicky Valvo, the Legal Service attorney assigned to represent Justice, could not be reached to comment.
“The Office of Mental Health has filed a petition under section 330.20 of the Criminal Procedure Law in the John Justice case,” said the state official, who spoke to The News on the condition of anonymity. “The original court date for this matter was set as March 28 before Judge Boller, but has been adjourned and no new date has been set.”
The mental health agency has jurisdiction in the Justice case because he was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the Sept. 16, 1985, murders of his father, John W., and younger brother, Mark, in the family’s Mang Avenue home, where the-then Kenmore West High School student had also fatally stabbed his mother, Mary. In a failed suicide attempt later that day, Justice caused a two-car crash that killed Wayne Haun.
Justice was convicted of second-degree murder for the deaths of his mother and Haun, but at a retrial, he was found guilty of lesser manslaughter charges and given a shorter prison sentence, and he was released on parole in September 2005.
Two years later, though, Justice was back in state prison for violation of parole and ordered to complete the remaining eight years of his prison sentence. That concludes Sept. 7, 2015. The parole violation alleged that he threatened the staff at the Buffalo halfway house where he had been living.
Justice again became eligible for parole last August, but did not seek an early release, according to state prison records.
Prior to being sent back to state prison in 2007, Justice had told The News that he would prefer to remain behind bars rather than live at the Grace House on Bailey Avenue. He said he did not care for the other ex-convicts living at the residence.
But he apparently had a change of heart about remaining in prison.
In a letter last month to a News reporter, Justice said he planned to seek an early, conditional release.
“Please be advised I have exercised my right to be released from prison,” Justice wrote.
Now, though, with the actions of the mental health office, his quest for freedom may end up indefinitely postponed.
Police officials in Buffalo have declined to comment directly on the latest developments in the case, but they are concerned about his release.
“We would prefer not to have him back in the city,” one police official said.
Defense attorney Nuchereno, who succeeded in having two of Justice’s second-degree murder convictions overturned, pointed out that Justice had previously been “free and clear of the Office of Mental Health” because its staff had not been following his case for years.
But then the Office of Mental Health re-entered the picture during his parole hearing in 2006 and at that time Justice voluntarily resubmitted himself to the agency’s jurisdiction, according to Nuchereno.
“John’s attitude was upon future parole release, he would get help from OMH. He wanted all the help he could get. I don’t think he realized he was resubmitting to possible lifelong jurisdiction,” Nuchereno said, adding he was not the attorney representing Justice at that time.