Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Miscarriage of Justice in Mississippi: The Michelle Byrom Case

by Nomad

The decision to execute Michelle Byrom has been called "gravely inhumane." As the date of her execution approaches, people have begun to ask how the state of Mississippi can justify the judicial murder of an innocent woman.

Fifty-six year old Michelle Byrom would become the first woman in 70 years to be put to death in Mississippi but that's not why her case deserves a closer look.  By any standards, this case represents a clear-cut case of miscarriage of justice. A writer for The Atlantic describes the situation like this:
This woman was horribly abused her whole life, up to and including her life with the murder victim. She was rendered mentally ill by this abuse. For 15 years, prosecutors and judges have known that it was her son who shot his father. And yet still the state relentlessly has sought to impose the death penalty. Mississippi wants its pound of flesh. But why from Michelle Byrom? What would it prove?
That moral outrage was echoed by The Natıonal Coalıtıon To Abolısh The Death Penalty. The organization has cataloged the multitude of problems with the Byrom murder trial. 

Michelle Byrom was charged with hiring her son’s friend, Joey Gillis, to kill her abusive husband in June 1999. She certainly had enough of a motive. After being sexually abused by her stepfather, Michelle was in many respects the perfect victim for a man like Edward Byrom, Sr. They had begun their relationship when she was only 15 and for 40 years, the often savage abuse became a regular feature of her life. In many ways, it was the only life she had known. 
Nevertheless, despite this motive, Michelle did not kill her abusive husband. 
It is clear now that her son killed his abusive father. Her son confessed in letters to her and to a court-appointed psychologist that he committed the crime. Byrom’s son is free on parole, and the man she supposedly hired is free.... Edward Byrom Sr. was shot in his home, with his own gun.
Michelle was in the hospital with double pneumonia at the time of the murder. Even though Michelle was heavily medicated and in the hospital, the police pressured her to confess to the murder to save her son from "taking the rap." The pressure continued on this mentally ill woman until she confessed and added details about the supposed murder-for-hire.
There were even more serious problems with how the trial was handled.
The jury did not hear that Edward Jr. had twice confessed that he actually murdered his father and there was no murder-for-hire. During the investigation Edward, Jr. confessed that he murdered his father to the state-appointed forensic psychologist. Corroborating evidence convinced the psychologist the confession was genuine. The psychologist told the trial judge what he had learned and asked for instructions. The judge allowed the trial to proceed without disclosing this exculpatory evidence to Michelle’s lawyers, and then sentenced Michelle to death. Junior’s confession to the psychologist was never given to Michelle’s defense attorneys nor presented to the jury.
Before the trial, Junior had written two letters to this mother detailing the abuse and described exactly why and how he- and he alone- had murdered his father. He wrote:
“As I sat on my bed, tears of rage flowing, remembering my childhood, my anger building and building. I went to my car, got the 9mm and walked to his room and peeked in, and he was asleep. I walked about two steps in the door, and screamed and shut my eyes. When I heard him move, I started firing.”
Despite four confessions, on the stand, he stuck to the story he originally told sheriffs—that Gillis was the killer, and Michelle Byrom had hired Gillis for the hit.  Even so, the physical evidence should have aroused serious doubts about that claim. Gunpowder was found on his hands and not on the man his mother supposedly hired. Ultimately, Michelle was found guilty, and a judge sentenced her to death.

Strangest of all, the Tishomingo County judge accepted the son's confession to the psychologist in order to free Gillis, the man his mother was alleged to have hired. Murder charges were dropped and the suspect was released. And yet the confession was suppressed in the trial of the mother. How could the son's confession clear the hit-man, and not clear the mother that was thought to have hired the hit-man. (She herself was never suspected of pulling the trigger.)

Logically that decision makes no sense. Clearly her defense attorney failed to defend his client. The entire justice system in Mississippi seems to have thoroughly botched the case. The abuse Michelle received first from her step-father, then from her husband has now been transferred to the judicial system right up until the end of her life.
An editorial in The Jackson Free Press has stated in no uncertain terms its position on this case:
"Byrom suffered a lifetime of abuse that had a jury heard about it could have been sufficiently mitigating for her to receive life imprisonment rather than death for the capital offense of murder-for-hire. It would be gravely inhumane to execute a woman as mentally and physically ill as Michelle Byrom—and a frightening contrast to all the brutal woman-killers that previous Gov. Haley Barbour pardoned....To execute Michelle Byrom for a crime that she did not commit would be one of the worst miscarriages of justices in modern Mississippi history. This execution must not happen."
For a more detailed look at the Byrom case, check out this article in The Atlantic.