Why Does Mississippi Want to Execute Michelle Byrom?

The state wants to execute a 56-year-old mentally ill woman on March 27th, even though no one now seems to believe that she murdered the husband who had battered and abused her for years.
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UPDATE: On March 31, Michelle Byrom's conviction was vacated. She won a new trial, which will be assigned to a different judge. 


The Byrom family tragedy in Mississippi is a one-act play, with four characters, with a sadly inevitable ending. There is Edward Byrom Sr., who was murdered in his own bed on June 4, 1999. There is his son, Edward Byrom Jr., a frequent victim of his father's abuse, who has since confessed to the killing. There is Joey Gillis, the son's friend, initially charged with shooting the elder Byrom in a murder-for-hire plot. And there is Michelle Byrom, the victim's mentally ill and serially abused wife, who was charged with hiring Gillis to kill her husband.

Of the three still-living characters in this grim story, two are out of prison now, having paid the debt to society that Mississippi's justice system had decreed. The third may be executed Thursday at old Parchman Farm, home of the Mississippi state penitentiary: the only woman in this story, the mentally ill wife of the slain man. Michelle Byrom, 56, who has not been accused of firing the shots that killed her husband, would become the first woman in 70 years to be put to death in Mississippi.

The case of Michelle Byrom contains the unholy trinity of constitutional flaws sadly so common in these capital cases. Her lawyers acted incompetently at trial, making one mistake after another. Exculpatory evidence that likely would have changed the outcome of her trial was hidden from her by her trial judge, and perhaps by prosecutors as well. Dealing with co-defendants, prosecutors played a form of musical chairs with the facts and with the charges. The only thing missing from the usual equation here is race, but it was replaced by a callous disregard, at all levels of law, for the impact of domestic abuse upon this doomed family.

It is uncertain whether Byrom's execution will proceed as planned. The Mississippi attorney general has sought March 27th as an execution date, but the state supreme court has not yet approved the date, and it would be unusual for the court to do so so soon before an execution date. Either way, the attorney general has made it clear that he wants this execution to happen. His decision is indefensible as a matter of law because Byrom's trial was manifestly unconstitutional.

It is even less acceptable as a matter of morality. 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? Whose interest would it serve?

***

It's hard to know if irony is the right word to capture what happened to Edward Byrom Sr. He began his relationship with Michelle Byrom roughly 40 years ago by committing statutory rape. She was 15. He was 31. She was likely willing to enter into this relationship because her stepfather had sexually abused her—had even pimped her out to other men. Not only her father abuse Michelle, he abused her siblings as well, and when their mother sought to intervene, she was physically harmed. The pattern established in Michelle's life, the abuse continued with Byrom. He was plainly savage with her.

Edward and Michelle Byrom soon had a son, Edward Jr., but a man willing to persistently abuse his wife is also apt to persistently abuse his children. And, indeed, the elder Byrom regularly hit his son and subjected him to horrible and continuous verbal abuse. Imagine a father saying to a son over and over, amid a pattern of physical abuse, "You were a fucking mistake to begin with!" Here is how Edward Jr. recounted the murder in a pre-trial letter his mother smuggled out of jail. (View a copy of the full letter here.)

I sit in my room for a good 1 1/2-2 hours, and dad comes in my room, and goes off on me, calling me bastard, nogood, mistake and telling me I'm inconciderate (sic), and just care about my self, and he slaps me, then goes back to his room. 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 9 mm., 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.

When I opened my eyes again, I freaked! I grabbed what cassings (sic) I saw, and threw them into the bushes, grabbed the gun, and went to town. I saw Joey, told him to hide the gun, and he said he'd take it to his spot, which I knew from when I'd sell him stuff, and went and told mom that dad was dead, and before her terry eyes could let loose I ran out of the hospital, and headed for the house, I was so confused.

Tishomingo County didn't see the murder as a case of an abused child turning on his tormentor. Instead, they saw a plot, a murder-for-hire conspiracy between the murder victim's wife, his son, and a friend of his son. They saw the shooter as Joey Gillis, the friend, even though Gillis had no gunshot residue on his hands. And they saw the plot's mastermind as Michelle Byrom, with motive to rid herself of an abusive husband. They based this theory on Edward Jr.'s verbal statements to investigators, the recordings of which were then lost or destroyed.

Prosecutors indicted all three of the alleged co-conspirators on capital murder charges. Mississippi had a self-serving confession from Edward Jr., implicating his mother and blaming Gillis for the murder. And they had a confession from Michelle Byrom herself, taken while she was heavily medicated, amid questions about her mental stability. What exactly did this confession sound like? The sheriff told the addled Byrom: "Listen, we are going to be able to pull enough together ... don't leave [Edward, Jr.] hanging out here to bite the big bullet." To which Michelle Byrom, Edward Jr.'s mother, replied: "No, he's not going to. I wouldn't let him ... I will take all the responsibility. I'll do it."

***

With the two confessions, dubious or not, the prosecution's case was easy enough. It was made far easier, however, by the poor work of Byrom's attorneys. They presented no witnesses on their client's behalf during the trial and, after her quick conviction, they inexplicably advised Byrom to waive her right to have a jury determine her sentence. Yet when it came time to present the sentencing judge with mitigating evidence to spare her life—and Michelle Byrom's whole life to that point had essentially been a series of mitigating factors—defense attorneys failed to adequately do so. She was promptly sentenced to death.

The defense attorneys, alone, did not violate Michelle Byrom's constitutional rights. The trial turned, as many of these dubious capital cases turn, on evidence the jury never got to see. While Edward Jr. was telling prosecutors that his mother had conspired with Gillis to kill his father, he was telling his mother, and the court-appointed psychologist, that he was the shooter and that neither his mother nor his friend had anything to do with the crime. Prosecutors called these confessions "conflicting testimony" and chose to believe the version that included both mother and son in the murder plot with Gillis as the shooter.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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