Think Mississippi’s death penalty system is fair? Then don’t read this.
If the state of Mississippi had finished what it started, Michelle Byrom would be dead right now. Instead, based on revelations about confessions kept from a jury and an alleged case of perjury, the state’s Supreme Court on Monday tossed out Byrom’s murder conviction and ordered a new trial — but also ordered that a new judge conduct it.
And this is after the case had already gone through the regular channels of appeal, as Oxford, Miss., legal blogger Tom Freeland pointed out:
“This is extraordinary and unprecedented to my knowledge. The order says that considering the petition — which I am told raised innocence issues — “the petition is well taken and should be granted.” The entire conviction — not just the sentence — is vacated for a retrial.
“This is after the case has been tried, on direct appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court, on certiorari to the United States Supreme Court, on post conviction to the Mississippi Supreme Court, certiorari again, and then the federal district court and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Next time someone says that a death sentence is fine because of all the judges who looked at it, remember Michelle Byrom.”
Byrom won a new trial based on a last-ditch post-conviction relief filing submitted Feb. 24, more than a month ahead of her March 27 scheduled execution. The case involved the 1999 murder of her abusive husband, Edward Byrom (our colleague Matt Pearce has more details here). Michelle Byrom was in a hospital being treated for pneumonia when the killing took place; she was accused of masterminding the hiring of Joey Gillis, a friend of her son, Edward Byrom Jr., to kill her husband.
But confessions and other evidence surfaced — some of which wasn’t presented to her attorneys or the jury — that the son had killed his father to end long-running physical and verbal abuse. The state ultimately convicted Gillis and the son of post-crime related charges, and notably didn’t convict Gillis of pulling the trigger. Yet his role was key to the case against Byrom, who was convicted on a capital murder charge in part based on alleged perjured testimony by her son.
Yeah, it’s a mess, with enough confusion and probable cause to cast serious doubt over whether Byrom received a fair trial, at the least, and suggests that she likely is innocent. Details of apparent confessions from the son don’t leave a lot of room for debate.
Pro-death penalty advocates may argue that this case proves the system works because Byrom has not been executed and gets another chance to defend herself. True. But it took extraordinary legal work to make that happen, and as we all know, not all defendants get such legal help. And wrongful convictions are not as rare as many would like to think.
Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle
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