PUBLISHED:April 23, 2024

Appellate Litigation Clinic argues on behalf of S.C. man’s long-delayed appeal in Fourth Circuit


3Ls Lucas Mears, Matt Queen, and Margaret Kruzner worked together to draft an argument to allow Millanyo Woody’s strong case to continue.

Mears, Kruzner, and Queen standing together for photo 3Ls Lucas Mears, Margaret Kruzner, and Matt Queen

Last month, Margaret Kruzner ’24 argued before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on behalf of a client of the Appellate Litigation Clinic whose day in court was delayed for years by the COVID outbreak. For Kruzner, it’s an experience she’ll remember long after graduating this May.

“When I applied to law school, I dreamt of representing people like Mr. Woody – people with incredibly strong claims who don’t have access to counsel – in the federal courts of appeals,” Kruzner said. “It’s an inspirational way to start my career as an appellate litigator.”

The Fourth Circuit appointed Woody’s case to the clinic in September 2023. The Greenville, S.C., man was found guilty in 2013 of criminal sexual conduct with a minor.

During that trial there was no physical evidence presented to connect Woody to the crime, Kruzner said, and an expert witness improperly vouched for the victim’s credibility as a witness. “Woody’s attorney did not object,” Kruzner said, “Despite clear law in South Carolina directing her to do so.”

She added: “Woody diligently appealed and sought post-conviction relief, and is currently seeking a writ of habeas corpus for his attorney’s ineffective assistance of counsel.”

After seven years of representing himself pro se, Woody had received a certificate of appealability to present his case to the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va. However, this happened amid the COVID pandemic in 2020, and the increased health and security protocols and service interruptions that interrupted the mail and the operation of the courts.

“Mr. Woody did not receive timely notice that he could appeal,” Kruzner said. “He wrote to the courts several times seeking an update on his case, but Mr. Woody’s prison was on strict lockdown for COVID-19, leaving him without access to the law library, any people to discuss his case with, and even the court’s online docketing system.”

Kruzner said, “Because of those difficulties, it looked like Mr. Woody missed the deadline to appeal.”

Preparing for Oral Argument

When the clinic received Woody’s case, Clinic Director Richard Katskee, assistant clinical professor of law, led Kruzner and fellow student-attorneys Lucas Mears ’24 and Matt Queen ’24 in writing their opening brief and a reply brief to respond to the South Carolina attorney general’s arguments in Woody’s long-awaited appeal.

The students carefully pored over the record in the case to understand what went wrong in Woody’s original trial. Katskee said they got to know and earned the trust of the client, identified and researched the complicated legal issues in the appeal, and wrote briefs that told a powerful and persuasive story about an injustice and how it ought to be remedied.

Kruzner said this was an opportunity to work with two close friends and do some good. The trio worked tirelessly, contributing thoughtful portions of the briefs, organizing and leading meetings with Woody, and mooting Kruzner in preparation for oral argument.

Queen said, “Each of us formulated questions we anticipated from judges and developed the most persuasive answers. Luke and I also played the State during moots with other students, faculty, and practicing attorneys.”

Mears championed the team’s strong work ethic and highly collaborative environment. “Working with amazing teammates in Matt Queen and Margaret Kruzner made working this entire case incredibly rewarding and a great experience,” he said.

Their teamwork culminated in a 20-minute oral argument on March 21. Kruzner presented to Fourth Circuit Judges Roger L. Gregory, Stephanie D. Thacker, and James Andrew Wynn, arguing against the South Carolina Attorney General’s Office. She pointed to disparities in the record demonstrating and substantiating Woody’s claim that he received the district court’s judgment belatedly and, therefore, should not lose his right to an appeal based on procedural irregularities during the COVID pandemic.

exterior of the Lewis F. Powell, Jr. Courthouse
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit located in the Lewis F. Powell Courthouse in Richmond, Virginia

Kruzner also noted there was another case in the Fourth Circuit with the same expert witness, giving virtually identical testimony during a very similar criminal trial in South Carolina, and that litigant received habeas relief.

“That’s what’s lurking underneath this procedural debate,” Kruzner stated, “Mr. Woody has a strong claim that he should be released.” She said it seemed clear the judges empathized with Woody’s frustration that the federal courts simply didn’t work how they were supposed to in his case.

Queen and Mears sat alongside Kruzner at the counsel table that day, too. They were able to provide quick insights regarding the judges’ questions and contribute to the rebuttal argument. “Without their unwavering support, the argument would not have been nearly as successful,” Kruzner said.

Katskee praised her presentation to the judges and described the students' work on the briefs as both elegant and eloquent. "What impressed me the most is the way that Matt, Luke, and Margaret worked together as a team," Katskee said. "They recognized and built on each other’s strengths, and they approached everything with the absolute commitment to serve the client and the court to the best of their ability."

He added: "They aren’t just great students, they are great lawyers and genuinely good people."

Working in the Appellate Litigation Clinic

Richard Katskee headshot
Richard Katskee

Kruzner, Mears, and Queen’s experience exemplifies the type of work students do in the Appellate Litigation Clinic. Katskee accepts appointments from federal appellate courts, and students work in teams to review, research, and write their briefs, and, when possible, present their oral argument in the same school year.

“Working in the Appellate Litigation Clinic has really been a highlight of law school for me,” Mears said. “It has been great to work with Professor Richard Katskee and to gain exposure to appellate practice while being able to help our incarcerated client with a very complicated case.”

Mears’ experience at Duke Law includes working as a research assistant for Veronica Root Martinez, Professor of Law; Brandon Garrett, the L. Neil Williams, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law; and former Duke Law Professor Ofer Eldar. He's involved in Moot Court, the Lyme Disease Advocacy Project, the Veterans Assistance Project, and is a student in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic. This past summer, Mears worked as a summer associate at Sidley Austin's Boston office, as well.

A member of Moot Court and Mock Trial Board, Queen said, “The entire clinic experience was a phenomenal capstone for my education at Duke Law, and I am deeply grateful for my wonderful professors and colleagues who made it possible.” Queen is a student editor for the Bolch Judicial Institute and has held summer associate positions at Brooks, Pierce, McLendon, Humphrey & Leonard in Raleigh and Robinson Bradshaw in Charlotte, N.C.

As the group’s time with the clinic comes to an end this month, Kruzner is grateful to have been able to learn from and work with Katskee.

“Richard is an incredible mentor and a force in constitutional appeals,” she said. “I will cherish and draw from our work for the rest of my career.”

In addition to serving as president and intermural chair of Duke Law’s Moot Court Board, Kruzner has competed in the Twiggs-Beskind Cup and Jessup Cup competitions, reaching the semi-finals in the latter. She won the Best Opening Statement Award at the Texas Young Lawyers Association National Trial Competition in February, as well.