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Doubts abound in pending execution
by By Tim Kalich Greenwood Commonwealth
Mar 27, 2014 | 87 views | 0 0 comments | 104 104 recommendations | email to a friend | print
It is questionable whether Mississippi should be executing anyone, given the dubious deterrent effect of capital punishment and the huge expense of going through all the appeals before the execution is carried out, often decades after the crime was committed.

But if the state is going to execute someone, it needs to be absolutely certain the person getting the lethal injection is guilty and deserves the ultimate punishment. If there is any doubt, the execution should be delayed until those questions are resolved.

There are too many uncertainties about the conviction and subsequent sentencing of Michelle Byrom to proceed with her execution, which is scheduled for Thursday.

Byrom, 57, was convicted in 2000 for allegedly arranging the murder of her abusive husband.

However, as Jerry Mitchell, the veteran investigative reporter of The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, unveiled in a story Sunday, Byrom's son, Edward Byrom Jr., repeatedly alternated between confessing to the killing and saying the confessions were fabricated in an effort to protect his mother.

Only one of those versions can be true, of course, but the jury, when it apparently decided the son's confessions were fabricated, was denied two key pieces of evidence - the letters he wrote his mother in which he detailed what provoked him to shoot his father and how he did it. The presiding judge in the case ruled the letters were not admissible because the defense had not shared them with prosecutors before the trial. The state Supreme Court was divided on whether the judge made the right call, with three out of eight justices saying Michelle Byrom was entitled to a new trial.

One of those dissenting justices, Jess Dickinson, harshly criticized her defense attorneys for their handling of her sentencing phase as well. According to Mitchell, they provided no evidence - such as a history of physical, sexual and emotional abuse - that might have led to a less-severe sentence because they were convinced her conviction would be reversed. Why they assumed that perplexed Dickinson, who wrote that he could not imagine "a more egregious case of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of a capital case."

There you have it. A defendant with reported mental illness gets convicted in part due to the testimony of a less-than-credible son, who saved his own neck by working out a plea deal with prosecutors. The jury that finds her guilty doesn't get to see the letters that might have influenced their opinion of his testimony. Her own lawyers fail to put up mitigating evidence that might have persuaded the judge to give her a life sentence rather than the death penalty.

All of this should cause Mississippi to hit the pause button. If a federal court won't intervene, Gov. Phil Bryant should stop the execution until these doubts about Michelle Byrom's guilt and death sentence are resolved.

It's been almost 15 years since this crime occurred. A few more months to be sure a terrible injustice has not been done won't hurt anything.
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