Conviction overturned, could death row inmate Michelle Byrom walk free?

Mississippi's Supreme Court on Monday overturned the conviction of Michelle Byrom, sentenced to die in 2000 for arranging her husband's murder. The same court had previously upheld her conviction. What changed?

Mississippi Department of Corrections/AP
Death row inmate Michelle Byrom, in Pearl, Miss., Jan. 11, 2011, who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death for her role in the killing of her husband.

Michelle Byrom has always been an unusual death row inmate. Even as her possible execution loomed last week, those who had condemned her to death agreed from the start that the troubled wife and mother had not herself killed anybody.

In what’s been called an extraordinary ruling, the Mississippi Supreme Court on Monday reversed Ms. Byrom’s capital murder conviction, ordering a new trial and a new judge amid discomfiting new evidence that Byrom took the rap for her son, who has confessed several times to killing his father.

"Our citizens can once again take comfort in the fact that we have a legal system that works for all parties involved,” said Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who had requested, and been denied by the high court, a March 27 execution date for Byrom at the state’s Parchman Farm penitentiary.

Arch Bullard, the original prosecutor in the case, has never wavered from his belief that Byrom is the mastermind of a murder plot.

The court did not explain its reasons for ordering a new trial. Death penalty experts say problems with a rookie defense team, the fact that the jury never knew of the son’s confessions, and the lingering question of whether maternal instinct prompted Byrom to take the rap for her son may have troubled the state’s high court.

At this point, they say, it’s possible that prosecutors could decide to forego another trial, allowing Byrom to walk free after nearly 14 years in prison.

“The big picture just finally overwhelmed the technical legal rules that allowed this thing to keep going,” says Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. “It’s not outside the realm of possibility that this is an innocence case, where at one moment she could’ve been executed and now she may walk free – quite a disparity of outcomes.”

Byrom was convicted in 2000 of masterminding the murder of her husband, Eddie Byrom. The prosecution argued that she was an angry, bitter schemer who wanted to collect payment on her husband’s life insurance policy, so in 1999 she paid a hit man, a friend of her son's, $15,000 to kill Mr. Byrom at the couple's home in Iuka, Miss.

At trial, the jury never heard that Edward Byrom Jr. had confessed to the crime in four letters, and that he had said he acted on his own volition when he turned on a physically abusive father. State prosecutors now acknowledge that the friend, Joey Gillis, was not the trigger man, as they had argued to the jury during trial. But the son later turned on his mother and became a state witness – and served nine years in prison for his role in the alleged murder-for-hire scheme. The younger Byrom has since been released.

Michelle Byrom, meanwhile, faced execution on March 27. But on that day, the Mississippi Supreme Court, which in 2006 had upheld Byrom's conviction, denied the state's execution request – a first sign that at least some on the court had misgivings about her case and the doubts raised by the son's letters. 

Notably, last year the Fifth US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld her 2000 conviction, saying that errors during trial didn’t rise to a level that undermined the original judge’s adjudication of the case. In February, the US Supreme Court declined to take up Byrom's appeal.

The original trial judge, Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner, told CNN on Tuesday that he had no comment on the latest ruling for a new trial.

High court Justice Josiah Dennis Coleman told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that the tribunal’s decision was “extraordinary and extremely rare in the context of a petition for leave.”

The case began to disintegrate last week, even as local and national news media focused on the looming execution. Mississippi had not executed a woman in 70 years, and newspapers had published several op-ed articles by former Mississippi Supreme Court justice, Oliver Diaz, that drew attention to errors during trial that he argued fell well outside the realm of “harmless.”

On Monday, Mr. Diaz told CNN in an e-mail that the Mississippi high court’s reversal of the Byrom conviction is “actually kinda amazing.”

“This was a terrible family tragedy … but the [original trial] judge was cooler in evaluating these mitigating factors,” says Mr. Dieter. “It’s certainly a case of a lot of doubts, and now the question is whether there’s even a coherent case against her.”

According to state prison officials, Byrom is to be moved from death row on Tuesday and sent back to Tishomingo County, where one fact remains clear: Eddie Byrom Sr. died in his home of a gunshot wound.

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