UPDATE: The Mississippi Supreme Court has reversed Michelle Byrom’s death sentence and conviction and ordered a new trial. The action was called “extraordinary” and “extremely rare”, but required by the circumstances of the case. **
UPDATE: The Mississippi Supreme Court did not approve the state’s requested execution date for Michelle Byrom (March 27th). Further review of her appeals is pending. **
Michelle Byrom (left), 57, could be executed on Thursday of this week for a crime she did not commit. She was charged with hiring her son’s friend to kill her abusive husband and was convicted in 2000, but it is now clear that her son killed his abusive father himself and then made up a murder-for-hire conspiracy story to get a lesser charge.
Deputies arrested Edward Jr. as a minor part of a murder-for-hire plot, they also arrested his friend Joey Gillis, the “shooter”, and his mother, Michelle Byrom, the “mastermind”. It was Edward Jr. who led them to the murder weapon, as well.
The prosecution based their entire case on Edward Jr.’s statement (which was incidentally lost). They said that Michelle planned to pay $15,000 to Gillis for the hit. The money would come from Edward Sr.’s insurance payout.
“John Grisham couldn’t write this story,” said Warren Yoder, executive director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, in an interview with the Jackson Free Press, “In any reasonable world, this would be a short story…Instead, it is happening now in…Mississippi…I wish I could say this is unusual…”
Byrom’s son, Edward Jr., confessed at least 4 times in letters to her and verbally to a psychologist that he committed the crime. He is now free on parole, after serving about 14 years of his 50 year sentence (20 years suspended). The man that was supposedly hired by Byrom, to murder her husband is also free, released in 2009 after serving just about 9 years of his 15 year sentence. Gillis pled guilty to conspiracy to commit capital murder and accessory after the fact. Even though, Michelle may not have hired anyone to kill her husband, the State of Mississippi wants to execute her. She is the only woman on death row in the state and would be the first woman executed in Mississippi in 70 years.
Edward Byrom Sr. was shot in his home on June 4, 1999 with his own gun, a WWII-era Luger 9mm. Michelle was in the hospital at the time due to double pneumonia. After the murder, Edward Jr. called police. Investigators found no forced entry and suspected Edward Jr. Determining that he had been hanging out with his friend, Gillis earlier, they questioned him. Gillis denied having anything to do with the murder. Edward Jr. accused his mother of hiring his friend to kill his father. While Michelle Byrom was in the hospital and heavily medicated (with at least 12 powerful drugs, including Zoloft, Restoril, Librium, etc.) and also suffering from alcohol withdrawal, the Mississippi Highway Patrol pressured her to confess. Surprisingly, she did not despite the serious impairment to her judgment. Later that same night, the local Sheriff David Smith questioned her. He told her that her son had told them of the conspiracy and that she shouldn’t let her son “take the rap.” She confessed, parroting all of the details told to her by Smith.
Her first two statements, where she did not confess and where she just repeated everything the officer told her, were thrown out as violations of Miranda. Her two confessions where she repeated the previous confession were allowed.
“The whole tenor of the interrogations, while she was drugged up and in the hospital, was ‘this is going to go really bad on your son,’ basically saying that ‘you should say something to help your son,'” Voisin said, “And that’s what she did.”
At trial, Edward Jr. told the jury that at his mother’s request, his friend, Joey Gillis killed his father and he limited his own role in the murder. He stated that he procured the weapon for his friend and disposed of it after the murder. In exchange for his testimony, he took a plea deal that significantly lowered his prison time. The jury did not hear that Edward Jr. had already confessed to killing his father, twice, and that he did it on his own.
Edward Jr. confessed that he murdered his father to the state-appointed forensic psychologist, W. Criss Lott. The psychologist, using corroborating evidence, was convinced the confession was true. The psychologist informed the judge of the confession and asked for further instruction, but did not include it in his official report, seen by the defense. The judge allowed the trial to proceed and never disclosed the exculpatory evidence to the defense and then proceeded to sentence Michelle Byrom to death.
“I contacted the presiding Judge and asked him what I should do in the hypothetical situation where I had received specific information about the facts and details of a crime during the course of a forensic evaluation for mental competency and sanity,” Lott said in an affidavit dated Feb. 3, “The Judge told me I should tell him what I knew and so I told him about Edward Byrom Jr.’s confession…”
“When (Lott) evaluated Joey Gillis, Gillis said, ‘I didn’t shoot anybody. I helped Edward Jr. after the shooting, but I didn’t shoot anybody. Edward Jr. told Dr. Lott a very consistent story: that is that he was the one who did the shooting—that Edward Jr. himself did it,” Voisin said.
Edward Jr. also wrote a few letters to his mother before trial describing how he felt about being abused by his father and describing how and why he killed his father. Because defense counsel failed to disclose the letters to the prosecution before trial, the judge barred the defense from presenting them to the jury. This ruling is questioned by many experts, as Voisin put it, “It’s not like the lawyers were doing some legal jujitsu. It doesn’t serve the cause of justice to punish a defendant by withholding truthful information that goes to the heart of the case…It’s one thing to dismiss one incriminating statement as an offhand remark, but when someone writes two letters…then also makes a confession to a…psychologist…you have to think this guy is telling the truth.”
The judge being aware of the defense’s need and strategy to present this alternative confession barred them from doing so, not once, but twice, as stated above, 1) he barred the jury from hearing confession letters from Edward Jr. and 2) he failed to inform them that there was corroborative information that Edward Jr. confessed to a state-appointed psychologist during trial. Meanwhile, the prosecution was informed of all of Edward Jr.’s confessions and they also had knowledge of the physical evidence that corroborated these statements.
“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, no good, mistake, and telling me I’m inconsiderate and just care about myself, 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 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. When I opened my eyes again, I freaked…” reads part of Edward Byrom Jr.’s confession.
In another letter, he wrote, “[I] was fixing to go to bed when my dad came in, and said, ‘What do you think [you’re] doing coming in at this time?’ and before I could answer, he shoves me down, and my back hits the book shelf, and I begin to get up, and he grabs me and slaps me twice, and says, ‘You were a f*cking mistake to begin with!’ and shuts my door and leaves…He was always like that.”
“When they got me…I gave them a bullsh*t story…trying to save my own a**, but when [Tishomingo Co. Sheriff] David Smith started questioning me…I was so scared, confused, and high [on drugs], I just started spitting the first thought out, which turned into this big conspiracy thing…,” Edward Jr. wrote.
On top of the fact that Edward Jr. knew where the gun was, he was found with gunshot residue on his hands. Gillis, the alleged hitman, had no GSR on his hands. As a result of this, in addition to Edward Jr.’s confession to the psychologist, the prosecutor dropped the capital murder charges against Gillis, but not Michelle Byrom. Gillis pled to a much lesser charge of accessory.
During the sentencing phase of Michelle’s trial, her attorneys failed to present that 1) Michelle was mentally ill and 2) Michelle suffered extreme physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, not only as a child, but from her alcoholic husband, the victim, as well. This mitigating evidence could have proved pivotal. In fact, they didn’t present any mitigating witnesses or evidence. Michelle Byrom’s attorneys were inexperienced in capital defense. This was their first death penalty case. They advised her that the trial had so many errors that she would have a new trial in no time and therefore, she should not invoke her right for a jury to decide her sentence (this legal “strategy” is highly questionable). The defense refused to call mitigating witnesses wanting instead to use them during appeals. The trial judge, Thomas Gardner, who did not hear any mitigating evidence and suppressed Edward Jr.’s confessions sentenced her to death.
“I’ve never heard of such a whacky strategy…,” said David Voisin, a consultant on death-penalty cases, “…It’s presumptuous to roll the dice that way when someone’s life is on the line.”
Her step-father, Harold Postalwait, sexually abused her and then forced her into prostitution until she ran away from home at the age of 15. With no education and still a teenager, she moved in with Edward Byrom, a man twice her age, after meeting him while working as a stripper. They had only one child, Edward Byrom Jr. They married when Edward Jr. was 5. Michelle and Edward Jr. suffered years of abuse at the hands of Edward Sr. Edward Byrom Sr. was an extremely dominating and brutal man, he sexually, emotionally, and mentally abused his wife. He even sexually assaulted Michelle’s handicapped sister. However, she did not seek help out of fear for herself and her son. Doctors, who did not testify for the jury, found that Michelle Byrom’s lifelong abuse was so bad that she became mentally ill.
Dr. Keith A. Caruso, a forensic psychiatrist, diagnosed Michelle Byrom with borderline personality disorder, depression, alcoholism, and Muenchausen syndrome (a serious mental illness that causes a person to make themselves ill). It was the latter that caused Michelle to ingest poison so she could go to the hospital and get a reprieve.
“If I had been called to testify…I would have offered the opinion that…she was inclined to harm herself and act in a self-defeating manner, so that she was psychologically unable to leave the abusive relationship with her husband,” he said in a March 19, 2013, affidavit.
“It just hasn’t seem to gotten through that people in horribly abusive situations are doing things that don’t look reasonable, like taking rat poison so she can stay in the hospital and get some temporary relief from the situation,” Yoder said, “That’s not a strategy that looks reasonable, (but in the hospital) nobody’s actually abusing her…”
Dr. Ben Kitchens, Byrom’s court appointed physician, submitted a report that stated that her ingestion of rat poison over a period of about three years has caused most of her ailments.
Byrom said, “I figured that if I was in the hospital he wouldn’t be able to hit me…I would try to get to the hospital when I knew Ed would be having a bad spell.”
Byrom also suffers from lupus, anemia, chronic pain from a past dog attack, fibromyalgia, hypertension, and has had numerous surgeries. She is currently on at least 9 medications.
The prosecution portrayed Michelle as a femme fatale during the trial. They said that she was a devious, manipulative woman who forced her son to help her with a murder-for-hire scheme, so that she could get Edward Sr.’s life insurance money. They insisted that any talk of abuse was false because she never sought help and never left him (she did try to leave him several times, a familiar story for domestic-violence victims).
Prosecutor Arch Bullard’s strategy is sadly not uncommon, as The Jackson Free Press, put it, “Blame victims for not leaving – even though that can get them killed.” Bullard said at the 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…divorce him…seek sanctuary…?” To top it all off, now Bullard, the prosecutor of the case, admits that his theory of the case was wrong. He told the Daily Corinthian, “Gillis was part of the conspiracy, but not the person who…committed the murder.” He also admitted he knew that Edward Jr. confessed, but said it would have “seriously compromised” his future testimony.
“The only reason that Michelle was convicted is because she supposedly hired Joey Gillis…If Edward [Jr.] was shooting his father…and it wasn’t part of this plan…then Michelle should not even be in prison, much less on death row,” Voisin said.
In 2003, the defense appealed on their so-called grand strategy that the trial had numerous constitutional errors. Her conviction and sentence were upheld, even though the majority didn’t see the trial as error free, “We have found…there were instances of error committed by the trial court. With the numerous difficult decisions (pretrial, trial, and post-trial), which the learned circuit judge was called upon to make, many of which had to be made with only a few seconds of deliberation…”
The majority found that error is “a fact of life”, so therefore, her conviction stands. “…we have never held that a criminal defendant [is] entitled to a perfect trial, even…in death-penalty cases…”
Justice Ed Pittman Jr. thought that the errors justified a new trial, including the trial judge’s decision to exclude a videotape of Edward Byrom Sr. that may have depicted abuse. In 2006, Byrom appealed to the state Supreme Court saying that her attorneys were ineffective and gave her extremely bad advice. In a 5-3 decision, the court upheld her conviction and sentence.
Justice Jess Dickinson wrote in his dissent, “I have attempted to conjure up in my imagination a more egregious case of ineffective assistance of counsel…I cannot…The trial judge [Thomas Gardner] lacked statutory authority to impose the death penalty…Byrom and the State of Mississippi cannot merely agree for the trial judge to have…authority where the statute does not give the judge such power.”
In February, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Byrom’s case. Byrom’s attorneys also filed motions with the Mississippi Supreme Court to get a new trial. She asked the court to consider new evidence that she has uncovered. Her attorney, David Calder, argued that the defense was never told of the confession that Edward Byrom Jr., the key prosecution witness in the case, made to being the sole murderer of his father and that the psychologist who was told the confession was unlawfully not allowed to testify about the statements. The prosecution argued that Michelle Byrom should not be allowed to appeal any longer.
“The state doesn’t contest any of the facts. They’re just trying to raise…technicalities…sweep this under the rug…let’s just kill Michelle anyway. That’s what it boils down to,” Voisin said.
Her appeal is still pending.
Byrom also recently sued the Mississippi Department of Corrections over the secrecy of the execution procedure. Just a few days ago, Byrom’s attorneys agreed to dismiss their lawsuit after receiving information about the execution drugs and their suppliers. The Special Assistant Attorney General Paul Barnes said that the Corrections Department was wrong not to provide the information sought by Michelle Byrom. Byrom had asked Judge William Singletary to hold the agency in violation of public records laws for failing to provide information on whether the drugs are safe and reliable or on whether they are compromised in some way (i.e. expired, etc.).
“She’s been abused as a child…a wife…now, she’s being judicially abused…[this case is] flagrantly unjust,” Yoder said.
On top of all of that, two years after Michelle Byrom was convicted and sentenced, the U.S. Supreme Court officially decided that it was unconstitutional to allow a judge instead of a jury to impose the death penalty. They found that the Sixth Amendment requires that a jury find the aggravating factors necessary. Despite this, Byrom’s sentence of death seems to stand.
“Do you remember the last question your attorney asked me? If I did it? Yes, I did. I released a chaotic chain of events that are still unraveling…” Edward Junior wrote.