Sunday, January 4, 2015

Let’s Just Kill Michelle, Anyway

This essay was originally published by the California Innocence Project on its blog here.

People should be rioting in the streets all over America right now in seething anger over the disgusting farce that is and was the Michelle Byrom case. Although wrongful conviction cases have become so common these days that they often evoke nothing more than a disbelieving shake-of-the-head from society-at-large, what sets this particular case far apart from most others is the prosecuting state’s insistence on executing Michelle Byrom despite overwhelming evidence that she is probably innocent. It is the most morally repugnant, egregiously unfair, and constitutionally suspect case that I can recall reading about in a long, long time.
The underlying facts of the case are somewhat convoluted, but Ronni Mott, a reporter with the Jackson Free Press does an admirable job summarizing them in her eye-popping article “An Innocent Woman? Michelle Byrom v. Mississippi.” The case involves the murder of Michelle Byrom’s husband, Edward Byrom, Sr. (“Ed”), on June 4, 1999 at the hands of his own son Edward Byrom, Jr. (“Junior”). 

By all accounts, Ed was a despicable character. At age 31, he married 15 year old Michelle when she fled her family home to escape from a sexually abusive step-father who doubled as her pimp. Unfortunately for Michelle, however, Ed was not her knight in shining armor. Far from it, he was just another jerk who verbally and physically abused Michelle at every opportunity. He even forced her to have sex with other men which he videotaped. Michelle tried to leave Ed, but predictably he threatened violence which kept her in check. As Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic points out, “He was plainly savage with her.” In fact, Ed and the step-father were so savagely abusive of Michelle that she became mentally ill.
Eventually, the unhappy union between Ed and Michelle produced son Junior. For most folks, the birth of a child is an amazing and transformative life event. Not Ed. He simply viewed his son Junior as another family member who he could berate and abuse right along with Michelle. Thus, Ed would regularly strike Junior and subject him to unfathomable verbal abuse, routinely telling him “You were a fucking mistake to begin with!”

On the day Ed was killed, he drove Michelle to the hospital because she had double-pneumonia. He then returned home. In a letter he penned to Michelle, Junior described what happened next:
"I sit in my room for a good 1½ hours, and dad comes in my room, and goes off on me, calling me a bastard, nogood (sic), mistake and telling me I’m inconciderate (sic), and just care about my self, and he slaps me, then goes back in 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 in 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 casings (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 (sic) eyes could let loose I ran out of the hospital, and headed for the house, I was so confused."
Although Junior confessed to killing Ed, led police to the murder weapon, and was the only person with gunpowder residue on his hands, Tishomingo County prosecutors saw the killing as a murder-for-hire conspiracy between Junior, his friend Joey Gillis (“Gillis”) as the shooter, and Michelle as the mastermind determined to rid herself of an abusive husband. This cockamamie theory was derived from one of the many “bullshit stories” Junior told to police after they promised him a reduced sentence in exchange for testimony against his mother. It was bolstered by “admissions” Michelle made to police when they questioned her in the hospital while she was under the influence of a number of powerful drugs. Those “admissions” involved nothing more than Michelle parroting back what investigators had told her in order to protect Junior from being left “hanging out there to bite the big bullet.”

So with that evidence, Michelle was charged, prosecuted, convicted of capital murder, and sentenced to die. But that is only half of this three-ringed circus of a story. The attorneys assigned to represent Michelle at trial were shamefully incompetent. They had never tried a capital case before. They presented no witnesses in Michelle’s defense. They advised Michelle to waive her right to have a jury determine sentencing, and then when it came time to present the judge with evidence to mitigate her sentence, they presented nothing in support of her cause, naively believing that this would provide constitutional grounds for an appeal.
Predictably, they were wrong. On appeal, the Mississippi Supreme Court upheld her conviction by a 5-3 vote. In dissent, Justice Jess H. Dickinson, although concurring with majority on the issue of Michelle’s guilt, observed: “I have attempted to conjure up in my imagination a more egregious case of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of a capital case. I cannot. In recommending that Byrom waive her so-called right to have a jury hear the mitigating circumstances, and in presenting to the court little in mitigation of the death penalty, I believe Byrom’s counsel were certainly ineffective. I further believe justice was subverted in this case.”

So exactly how was justice subverted aside from the fact that Michelle Byrom’s trial was flagrantly flawed and unfair? To start, the trial judge who sent Michelle to the execution chamber because she was a “schemer” whose sole concern was profiting from her husband’s death, knew that Junior had confessed to killing Ed even though the prosecutor claimed that Gillis was the triggerman. The judge knew this because he had been previously informed of this fact by the forensic psychologist that he appointed to evaluate Michelle, Junior, and Gillis. The judge also knew from the psychologist that Gillis had admitted helping Junior after the fact, but denied pulling the trigger, pointing the finger instead at the admitted shooter Junior. Despite all of this, the trial judge disallowed the jury from hearing this evidence as a sanction against Michelle’s defense attorneys for not timely sharing the information with the prosecution.
Beyond that, Michelle suffered from a host of conditions brought on by her long history of abuse, including depression, alcohol dependence, Borderline Personality Disorder, and Munchausen’s Syndrome. As the psychiatrist retained by her defense team explained, these conditions rendered Michelle psychologically incapable of leaving her abusive husband. But the jury never heard this because Michelle’s trial counsel bumbled her defense so badly. Thus, prosecutors were able to play the “blame-the-victim” card without any push-back whatsoever.

Finally, and most disturbingly, prosecutors know that their whole theory underlying Michelle’s prosecution is total bunk. They admit that they were wrong about Gillis being the shooter. They know that Junior confessed to the crime on more than one occasion. And they certainly know that the side-show that was Michelle’s trial is constitutionally dubious at best. And yet, their whole attitude is “Let’s just kill Michelle, anyway.”
So while Junior, the self-admitted killer, and Gillis, the guy prosecutors insisted was the killer, both now freely roam the streets having served short prison sentences, Michelle Byrom is headed to the death chamber, gleefully being pushed along by the State of Mississippi and its top law enforcement officers.

 ’John Grisham couldn’t write this story,’ said Warren Yoder, executive director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi. ‘In any reasonable world, this would be a short story by Flannery O’Connor,’ Yoder continued. ‘Instead, it is happening right now in our Mississippi.’”
As Dan Moshenberg over at Women In and Beyond the Global has appropriately noted, “The details of Michelle Byrom’s life are hard and disturbing, but the substance, and stench, of Mississippi’s burning is far worse.”

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