Why Does Mississippi Want to Execute Michelle Byrom?

This article originally appeared in The Atlantic on March 23, 2014, and this exceprt is re-posted here with permission.

The Byrom family tragedy in Mississippi is a one-act play, with four characters, with a sadly inevitable ending. There is Edward Byrom Sr., who was murdered in his own bed on June 4, 1999. There is his son, Edward Byrom Jr., a frequent victim of his father’s abuse, who has since confessed to the killing. There is Joey Gillis, the son’s friend, initially charged with shooting the elder Byrom in a murder-for-hire plot. And there is Michelle Byrom, the victim’s mentally ill and serially abused wife, who was charged with hiring Gillis to kill her husband.

Of the three still-living characters in this grim story, two are out of prison now, having paid the debt to society that Mississippi’s justice system had decreed. The third may be executed Thursday at old Parchman Farm, home of the Mississippi state penitentiary: the only woman in this story, the mentally ill wife of the slain man. Michelle Byrom, 56, who has not been accused of firing the shots that killed her husband, would become the first woman in 70 years to be put to death in Mississippi.

The case of Michelle Byrom contains the unholy trinity of constitutional flaws sadly so common in these capital cases. Her lawyers acted incompetently at trial, making one mistake after another. Exculpatory evidence that likely would have changed the outcome of her trial was hidden from her by her trial judge, and perhaps by prosecutors as well. Dealing with co-defendants, prosecutors played a form of musical chairs with the facts and with the charges. The only thing missing from the usual equation here is race, but it was replaced by a callous disregard, at all levels of law, for the impact of domestic abuse upon this doomed family.

It is uncertain whether Byrom’s execution will proceed as planned. The Mississippi attorney general has sought March 27th as an execution date, but the state supreme court has not yet approved the date, and it would be unusual for the court to do so so soon before an execution date. Either way, the attorney general has made it clear that he wants this execution to happen. His decision is indefensible as a matter of law because Byrom’s trial was manifestly unconstitutional.

It is even less acceptable as a matter of morality. This woman was horribly abused her whole life, up to and including her life with the murder victim. She was rendered mentally ill by this abuse. For 15 years, prosecutors and judges have known that it was her son who shot his father. And yet still the state relentlessly has sought to impose the death penalty. Mississippi wants its pound of flesh. But why from Michelle Byrom? What would it prove? Whose interest would it serve?

Read the full article.

Source: National Coalition to End the Death Penalty