CREDIT: AP Photo/Mississippi Dept. of Corrections
Execution of Michelle Byrom was imminent in Mississippi last week, in an error-riddled trial that excluded evidence of her son’s admission to the crime. But on Monday, the state high court halted the execution, ruling not just that the death sentence was improper, but that her conviction should be overturned in its entirety and assigned to a new judge.
Michelle Byrom was convicted for the murder of her husband Edward Byrom Sr., even though Michelle was in the hospital at the time of his death, and even though the trial excluded evidence of multiple confessions to the murder by her son, Edward Byrom Jr. Michelle’s lawyers, who were trying their first-ever capital case, waived Michelle’s right to have a jury decide her sentence. They introduced no evidence that she was abused both as a child and in the marriage that ended in her husband’s death, nor that she was mentally and physically ill, even ingesting rat poison to harm herself.
Byrom Jr., his friend Joey Gillis, and Michelle Byrom were initially all charged in a murder conspiracy. But Byrom Jr. made a deal with the prosecutors to testify against his mother in exchange for a reduced sentence, and said in a letter that he told prosecutors his mother paid Gillis to murder her husband. That was the theory prosecutors pursued, even though Byrom Jr. later confessed that theory was false, also. During questioning in which officers reportedly warned Michelle that “this is going to go really bad on your son,” Michelle said she knew about the conspiracy and that police should not let her son “take the rap.”
In a 5-3 Mississippi Supreme Court decision declining to overturn the death sentence, dissenting Justice Jess H. Dickinson said of Michelle’s legal representation, “I have attempted to conjure up in my imagination a more egregious case of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of a capital case. I cannot.”
But a full panel of that same high court on Monday took what it called the “extremely rare and extraordinary” move of not just invalidating the death sentence, but also order a new trial on the conviction, and re-assigning her case to a different judge. This is because Michelle had moved for what is known as “post-conviction relief” that challenges the punishment, and not the underlying conviction. Thanks to the court’s action, Michelle will not only be removed from death row. She will have the chance to try her case again.
Officials in Mississippi have publicly lamented that they have likely been complicit in the sentencing and executions of innocent men, but the state continues to be one of a handful that lead the country in executions. And the United States ranks fifth in the world in executions, just behind Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran.