“There’s no way justice was done in this case,” said former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz Jr. “If an execution is allowed to proceed, we all are complicit in it in Mississippi.”
Mississippi is scheduled to execute Michelle Byrom on Thursday. Multiple confessions to the murder by her son were never admitted into evidence. Nor was the fact that she was abused both as a child and in the marriage that ended in her husband’s death. That she was mentally and physically ill, even ingesting rat poison to harm herself.
When her husband, Edward Byrom Sr., died, Michelle was in the hospital for double pneumonia.
Her son Edward Byrom Jr. wrote in one of several confession letters never admitted into evidence, “As I sat on my bed, tears of rage flowing, remembering my childhood my anger kept building and building, and I went to my car, got the 9mm, and walked to his room, peeked in, and he was asleep. I walked about 2 steps in the door, and screamed, and shut my eyes, when I heard him move, I started firing.”
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.”
Michelle was abused by her step-father for six years and forced into prostitution, according to an investigation by the Jackson Free Press. She ran away at age 15, and started living with Byrom Sr. Mississippi law defines sexual relations with a teen younger than 16 as statutory rape. Byrom Sr. later reportedly forced her to have sex with other men while he videotaped her.
On Michelle’s abuse, prosecutor Arch Bullard argued during trial: “There’s been arguments made that maybe Eddie wasn’t the husband or the father that he should’ve been. … Why didn’t she just leave him? Why didn’t she divorce him? Why didn’t she seek sanctuary somewhere else?”
Byrom Jr. was also abused — with stories of his rage included in his confession letter.
Michelle was convicted by a jury, but 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 about her abuse, mental illness, or other mitigating circumstances.
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 even the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to intervene, and Michelle’s death sentence by one trial judge is still standing, with her execution scheduled for Thursday.
Justice Diaz, who spoke out against Michelle’s execution, became an anti-death penalty advocate after realizing that he voted to send an innocent man to death. In one of his final dissents before retirement, he wrote of his state’s death penalty policy:
[I]nnocent men can be, and have been, sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. In 2008 alone, two men — both black — convicted of murders in Mississippi in the mid-1990s have been exonerated fully by a non-profit group that investigates such injustices. … Just as a cockroach scurrying across a kitchen floor at night invariably proves the presence of thousands unseen, these cases leave little room for doubt that innocent men, at unknown and terrible moments in our history, have gone unexonerated and been sent baselessly to their deaths.
And a former Mississippi Warden, who died in October, testified in 1995 that he fears he may have executed innocent men, saying, “I must say to you that however we do it, in the name of justice, in the name of law and order, in the name of retribution, you — and when I say you, I mean, generically, Americans — do not have the right to ask me, or any prison official, to bloody my hands with an innocent person’s blood.”
Last May, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to even test available DNA for death row inmate Willie Jerome Manning, even though the FBI deemed major pieces of evidence in the case “unscientific” and “invalid.” At the eleventh hour, the Mississippi Supreme Court agreed to stay Manning’s execution, but he remains on death row.
Mississippi remains one of a handful of states responsible for the majority of U.S. executions. Last year, Maryland became the sixth state in six years to ban capital punishment. And in February, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) became one of a number of state officials to impose a motarorium on the punishment, citing “too many flaws in the system.”