by Zachary Oren Smith
Michelle Byrom currently sits on death row. She will be the first woman executed in the state of Mississippi since 1944. As easy as it would be to get on a soapbox and talk about the ethical problems inherent in the state’s use of the death penalty, the injustice of this particular case is that Byrom should not be in her cell in the first place.
Byrom has been accused and convicted of paying Joey Gillis to murder her husband, Edward Byrom Sr. During the trial, evidence showed that Michelle had suffered years of sexual abuse from her husband, included Edward forcing her to have sex with his friends and several “foreign objects” while he videotaped the acts. To maintain Edward Jr.’s compliance, Edward brutally abused his son. Had this been the only evidence brought to trial, the prosecutor’s “murder-for-hire” narrative about Michelle would make sense.
However, during the investigation, Junior confessed to a state-appointed forensic psychologist to the murder of his father. The psychologist found that, based on the evidence, Edward Jr.’s confession seemed genuine. In fact, forensic analysis found gunpowder residue on Junior’s hands.
Junior confessed to the killing of his father—but that confession never came up in court. Instead, the courts heard a “confession” from Michelle—which police gained while she was in the hospital under the influence of at least 12 medications and which she made only after police told her Junior would be convicted if she didn’t intervene. Gillis was able to plead accessory to murder and received a reduced charge, and Junior was sentenced to 50 years in prison with 20 years suspended.
Michelle Byrom was the one sent to death row.
A press release from Mississippians Educating for Smart Justice explains that “Michelle’s attorneys were trying their first capital case. They advised her [that] the trial had so many errors it would be overturned on appeal, and that she therefore did not need to invoke her right for a jury to hear mitigating evidence about her abuse before it decided her sentence.” Michelle, based on her counsel’s opinion that the case would be thrown out, decided to forgo the jury’s further involvement and asked for the judge to make the decision. Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner sentenced her to death.
During the trial, the prosecutors painted a narrative of Michelle Byrom as a “scheming, manipulative woman.” In fact, at age 15, Michelle ran away from a father who, along with sexually abusing her, forced her to work as a prostitute. While still a teenager, she worked as a stripper, and she moved in with Edward Byrom—who at 31 was more than twice her age. According to a press release, “Michelle suffered years of brutal and humiliating physical, sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of her husband.”
Prosecutors sowed doubt around the story, asking, if she was abused, why didn’t she run away? ThePeer Support Services for Abused Women writes in depth about why women struggle to leave their abusers. These reasons can include the need for stability, concern for dependents like children in the relationship, and a belief that their abuse is natural or expected. All of the many reasons create a cycle that pits the abused against what is truly in their best interests, causing them to stay. The court plays right into the logic of the abuser: had the treatment really been bad, she would have left. In the prosecutors’ argument, Michelle’s alleged deal to murder her husband happened in a vacuum; it wasn’t the outcome of more than 20 years of marital abuse.
We often hear about how the court system failing minorities and women; this is an egregious example of justice failing both Michelle Byrom and our community.
Why haven’t Junior’s confessions via his letters and statement to his psychologist—which would have significantly mitigated charges against his mother—been brought up in court? Why are the men in this case receiving all their due evidence—while Michelle Byrom is left to be prosecuted only on evidence that hurts her case? Are women not allowed fair treatment within the court? Is Michelle Byrom’s past of physical and sexual abuse supposed to function to discredit her in a court of law? Are the people to suffer from the inexperience of attorneys “trying their first capital case?” Is a human being going to die because of a bureaucratic game of telephone preventing all the evidence from reaching the courtroom?
The perversion of justice in this case is sickening in its implications for women and the abused in the justice system. The fate of Michelle Byrom in many ways will be a moral benchmark for our court system. If she is put to death, we are sending a message to the world that, in Mississippi, it does not matter what evidence says about your innocence: Your culpability is purely in the hands of a perverse and absurd justice system.
After just under 15 years in jail, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has requested Michelle Byrom’s execution be set for March 27. If you want to avoid this execution defining Mississippi “justice,” please email Warren Yoder, executive director of the Public Policy Center of Mississippi, at WarrenYoder@gmail.com.