June 01, 2014

Mississippi Death Row Prisoner Granted “Extraordinary” and “Extremely Rare” Relief

Emily M. Williams, Senior Staff Attorney

On March 31, 2014, the Supreme Court of Mississippi granted “extraordinary and extremely rare” relief to death row prisoner Michelle Byrom. In a two-page order, the court simultaneously granted leave to file a successive petition for post-conviction relief and granted the relief requested in that petition, reversing Ms. Byrom’s conviction and death sentence and remanding the case for a new trial.

The court’s decision came just three days after the State had sought to carry out Ms. Byrom’s execution.  One month earlier, the State had asked the court to set Ms. Byrom’s execution for March 28, 2014. On March 27th, the court issued a short order saying that the request to set the date was “not well taken” and should be denied.  Four days later it issued the order reversing her conviction and ordering a new trial.

Although the court did not provide the reason for its decision, Ms. Byrom’s petition for relief raised issues of ineffective assistance of counsel and actual innocence. In the days leading up to the court’s decision, her case received a great deal of media attention, stemming primarily from a series of articles in the Jackson Free Press. The first, entitled “An Innocent Woman? Michelle Byrom vs. Mississippi,” detailed much of the evidence casting doubt on Ms. Byrom’s guilt.

Ms. Byrom was convicted and sentenced to death in 2000 for masterminding the death of her husband, Edward Byrom, Sr. Prosecutors alleged that she paid her son’s friend, Joey Gillis, $15,000 to kill Mr. Byrom. Physical evidence, however, pointed to Ms. Byrom’s son, Edward Jr. (“Junior”), as the shooter.  Junior was found with gunpowder residue on his hands, and he led police to the location of the gun used to shoot Mr. Byrom. Junior wrote at least three letters detailing how and why he committed the crime. Under pressure from police, however, he agreed to testify against his mother in exchange for a reduced sentence. Ms. Byrom herself was interrogated by police and provided a confession while she was hospitalized and under the influence of at least twelve different drugs. She has alleged that police coerced her to confess by saying that her son would be prosecuted for capital murder if she did not take the blame. The jury that convicted Ms. Byrom never heard about Junior’s three letters, nor did they hear that he also confessed directly to his court-appointed psychiatrist. Both Mr. Gillis and Junior pled guilty to lesser charges and served time in prison before being released, Mr. Gillis in 2009 and Junior in 2013.

Ms. Byrom was one of 16 plaintiffs who sued the state of Mississippi in 2010 over its failure to provide “competent and conscientious counsel” in post-conviction death penalty proceedings as guaranteed by the Mississippi Constitution. At the time of her initial post-conviction proceedings, Ms. Byrom was represented by a state office that was severely underfunded and understaffed. That office did not have the resources to investigate and develop the claims in many of its cases. Because the claims were not properly raised at the post-conviction stage, they were deemed waived in all future proceedings, regardless of how strong the claims might have been on their merits. The plaintiffs (collectively referred to as the “Knox Plaintiffs”) asked the court to issue an injection requiring the appointment of effective counsel and allowing them to file successor post-conviction petitions where they could raise the previously waived claims. The court denied relief to the Knox Plaintiffs as a group, but it also suggested that the plaintiffs might find relief by filing individual successive petitions for post-conviction relief.

In Ms. Byrom’s case, Mississippi Supreme Court denied her initial state post-conviction petition when it found that she had failed to allege any specific instance of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. After the Knox litigation, however, new counsel filed a successive petition for post-conviction relief that raised a host of claims alleging ineffective assistance, including the fact that Ms. Byrom’s trial counsel waived the right to a penalty phase hearing and called no witnesses. The successor petition presented a wealth of evidence that should have been shown to the jury, including her long history of mental illness and as a victim of abuse, as well as the striking evidence casting doubt on her guilt.

Following the court’s decision granting relief, Ms. Byrom was moved off of death row and into a county jail. She is currently awaiting a new trial.

Emily M. Williams, Senior Staff Attorney