Innocence

Instead of an Execution, Mississippi Supreme Court Throws Out the Conviction

In a case in which the state's Attorney General had asked for an execution date of March 27, the Mississippi Supreme Court instead threw out Michelle Byrom's murder conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial just four days later. The case was plagued with numerous problems, including inadequate representation, critical evidence not presented to the jury, confessions by another defendant, and the prosecution's lack of confidence in its own story of what actually happened. In its order reversing the conviction, the court described Byrom's case as "extraordinary and extremely rare." Prosecutors said that Byrom hired a friend of her son's to murder her husband, despite several confessions from her son, who said he killed his father because he snapped from years of abuse. The jury that convicted Michelle Byrom never heard evidence from a forensic psychologist who had told the judge that Byrom's son had confessed to the murder, nor were they presented with two letters from Byrom's son describing why he murdered his father. Byrom's son and his friend pled guilty to conspiracy in the crime and are now free after serving time in prison. David Voisin, an attorney advising Byrom's legal team, said, "We are grateful to the Mississippi Supreme Court in recognizing the extreme injustice in this case and taking the swift and extraordinary step of vacating Michelle Byrom's conviction so that she can have a fair opportunity to have her case heard in court."

Pew Poll Finds Opposition to Death Penalty Among Racial and Ethnic Minorities


Click to enlarge

Further analysis of a recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that support for the death penalty was significantly lower among some racial and ethnic minorities than for the general population. More Hispanics oppose the death penalty (50%) than support it (40%), and the same is true of African Americans, with only about a third (36%) favoring capital punishment and a majority (55%) opposing it. Democrats are about evenly split, with 45% in favor and 47% opposed, while 71% of Republicans support it. Black Protestants and Hispanic Catholics were among those most in opposition to capital punishment (58% and 54% opposed, respectively). Support was lower among younger Americans; for those in the age group 18-29, only 51% supported the death penalty. Overall, 55% of Americans in the poll supported the death penalty, the lowest level since Pew began polling on this question in 1996. Pew said greater public awareness of wrongful convictions and lower crime rates may be partly responsible for the declining support of capital punishment. 

BOOKS: Quest for Justice - Defending the Damned

In his book, "Quest for Justice: Defending the Damned," Richard Jaffe explores the problems of the American death penalty system through his experience as a capital defense attorney in Alabama. During the past twenty years, Jaffe has helped secure the release of three death row inmates: Randall Padgett and Gary Drinkard, who were fully exonerated, and James Cochran, who was cleared of murder charges, but pleaded guilty to a related robbery charge. In his book, Jaffe wrote, "I always keep in mind the maxim that history will judge a society by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable. Although most would assume that applies to the poor and the elderly, all one has to do is look at those who end up on death row: an overwhelming number are poor, disenfranchised and suffer from some mental defect or even brain damage." Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., a Harvard Law Professor, said of Quest for Justice, "This book tells the stories of people once convicted and sentenced to death and later acquitted of the same charges. It tells how it happened, shows the criminal courts are fallible and that poor people facing the death penalty may live or die depending on the competence and dedication of the lawyers appointed to defend them."

EDITORIALS: Mississippi Paper Calls Pending Execution "Gravely Inhumane"

A recent editorial in the Jackson Free Press in Mississippi called for a halt to the scheduled execution of Michelle Byrom, saying she is "clearly not guilty of the crime for which the state plans to execute her next week." The editorial noted that Byrom's son had confessed to the crime four times." He said the story he originally told sheriffs implicating his mother was made up because he was "scared, confused and high" when he was interrogated. The paper pointed to mitigating evidence about Byrom that could have been considered by a sentencing jury: "Byrom suffered a lifetime of abuse that had a jury heard about it could have been sufficiently mitigating for her to receive life imprisonment rather than death for the capital offense of murder-for-hire." The editors concluded: "It would be gravely inhumane to execute a woman as mentally and physically ill as Michelle Byrom—and a frightening contrast to all the brutal woman-killers that previous Gov. Haley Barbour pardoned....To execute Michelle Byrom for a crime that she did not commit would be one of the worst miscarriages of justices in modern Mississippi history. This execution must not happen." Read the full editorial below.

Doubts of Culpability Surround Upcoming Execution in Mississippi

Michelle Byrom is scheduled to be executed in Mississippi on March 27 for conspiring to murder her husband, Edward Byrom, Sr. Her son, Edward Byrom, Jr., known as Junior, confessed to the crime on multiple occasions, and wrote that he lied when he told police his mother and a friend were involved. "I was so scared, confused, and high, I just started spitting the first thought out, which turned in to this big conspiracy thing, for money, which was all BS, that's why I had so many different stories," he wrote. Junior testified against his mother in exchange for a reduced sentence and is now out of prison. Michelle Byrom was abused by her stepfather, ran away from home at age 15, and moved in with Edward, Sr., that same year, when he was 31. He verbally and physically abused her and threatened violence if she tried to leave. A forensic psychiatrist diagnosed Michelle with borderline personality disorder, depression, alcoholism, and Münchausen syndrome, saying the disorders were consistent with abuse. She was interrogated while in the hospital under the influence of 12 different medications, and only confessed when the Sheriff told her about her son's confession and encouraged her not to let her son "take the rap." Her trial attorneys, trying their first capital case, waived her right to have a jury decide her sentence, believing that would give them grounds for an appeal. They did not present evidence of her mental illnesses, thinking that evidence would be better saved for the appeal. The Mississippi Supreme Court upheld her conviction and sentence (5-3), with Justice Jess Dickinson writing in dissent, "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." UPDATE: Read Andrew Cohen's piece about this case The Atlantic.

Efforts Underway to Exonerate 14-Year-Old Executed in South Carolina in 1944

Attorneys representing the family of George Stinney, Jr., recently filed a request for a posthumous exoneration of Mr. Stinney, the youngest person executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. Stinney, an African-American 14-year-old, was executed in 1944 for the murder of two young white girls less than three months after a trial that was filled with errors. Although Clarendon County, South Carolina, where the trial took place, had a population that was 72% black, only whites served on Stinney's jury. Stinney's lawyer offered virtually no defense. His relatives, who could have offered an alibi, were not called to testify. Stinney allegedly made a confession, but the contents of his statement have never been revealed. His attorney did not file an appeal, so no court ever reviewed his trial. In a supportive brief in the effort to clear Stinney, the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project of Northeastern University School of Law stated, "The prosecution of George Stinney constituted a grave miscarriage of justice, causing great suffering for his family...Stinney’s shocking treatment was inconsistent with the most fundamental notions of due process, including but certainly not limited to the right to effective assistance of counsel."

Louisiana Inmate Likely to Be Freed After 30 Years on Death Row

UPDATE: Louisiana Judge Ramona Emanuel ordered Glenn Ford to be “unconditionally released from the custody of the Louisiana Department of Corrections.” (KTAL NBC News, Mar. 11, 2014). Glenn Ford, who has spent 30 years on Louisiana's death row is likely to be freed soon, after prosecutors filed motions to vacate his conviction and sentence. Prosecutors said they recently received "credible evidence" that Ford "was neither present at, nor a participant in, the robbery and murder" of which he was convicted in 1984. Ford, who has always maintained his innocence, was tried and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. One of the witnesses against him said at trial that police had helped her make up her story. A state "expert" who testified about the victim's time of death had not even examined the body. Ford's lead trial attorney had never tried a jury case before. A second attorney, two years out of law school, worked at an insurance defense firm. They failed to hire any experts to rebut the prosecution's case because they believed they would have to pay for the experts themselves. The Louisiana Supreme Court earlier said it had "serious questions" about the outcome of the trial, but did not reverse Ford's conviction. Ford may have been involved in trying to pawn jewelry from the victim that he received from one of the original codefendants.

NEW VOICES: The Conservative Case for Death Penalty Repeal in Kentucky

David Floyd, a Republican state representative in Kentucky, recently introduced a bill to repeal the state's death penalty, arguing that the law was incompatible with conservative values. Writing in the Louisville Courier-Journal, Floyd said his religious views initially caused him to oppose the death penalty, but he made a broader pragmatic case for repeal from a conservative perspective. He pointed to values such as respect for life, limiting government power, and cutting wasteful spending, as reasons to support abolition. He said, "Capital punishment in Kentucky is a broken government program that risks killing the wrongly convicted, risks abuse of power, wastes resources, is arbitrary and unjust." He concluded, "Conservatives must work with people across the political spectrum to expose the many deficiencies of Kentucky’s system of capital punishment. And then we must repeal it." Read the op-ed below.

Pages