Mississippi

Mississippi

POSSIBLE INNOCENCE: Mississippi Inmate Challenges Bite-Mark Evidence

A new appeal filed on behalf of Mississippi death row inmate Eddie Howard, Jr. presented DNA evidence that calls into question bite-mark evidence used to convict him in 1992. At Howard's trial, Dr. Michael West, a Mississippi dentist who had testified as a forensic expert in numerous cases, said Howard's teeth matched bite marks found on the murder victim. The victim had been buried for three days and exhumed before West examined her. He said he found three bite marks that matched Howard "to a reasonable medical certainty," but presented no photographs or other evidence to support his testimony. According to the Innocence Project, at least 17 people who were convicted of rape or murder based on alleged bite matches have been exonerated since 2000. Dr. West was the expert witness in two of those cases. In 2006, the Mississippi Supreme Court refused to reconsider Howard's case, saying, “Just because Dr. West has been wrong a lot, does not mean, without something more, that he was wrong here.” In 2010, the court granted DNA testing of the murder weapon and other items from the crime scene. That testing, which showed no link to Howard, is the basis for the new appeal.

Perspectives on Representing Death Row Inmates

Ken Rose has represented people condemned to death in the south for 30 years and recently described his experience with this "flawed system:" "The system reflects our biases and blind spots," he said. "Just like us, it is susceptible to error and prejudice and, sometimes, an indiscriminate desire for revenge. Like our country, it favors the privileged and takes the heaviest toll on the poor and mentally ill." As an example, Rose told the story of one of his clients, Leo Edwards, whose gas-chamber execution he witnessed in Mississippi in 1989. Edwards, who was black, was prosecuted by a district attorney who said he tried to "get rid of as many" black jurors as possible, and testified that he used that tactic in Edwards' trial, resulting in an all-white jury. The timing of Edwards' case prevented him from receiving a new trial: "This clear racial bias was never addressed because Leo’s case was too far along by 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court set new standards for reviewing claims of race discrimination in jury selection," he said. Rose noted that some improvements have been made, but "Racial bias still taints trials. Defendants are still chosen for death arbitrarily. Those sentenced to die are still overwhelmingly poor and mentally ill. Judges and lawyers, including myself, still make mistakes. Innocent people are still imprisoned."  Read the op-ed below.

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."

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.

NEW VOICES: Former Death Row Warden Opposed Death Penalty

Donald Cabana, the former warden of the Mississippi State Penitentiary who died recently, spent many years actively opposing the death penalty. Having supervised several executions, Cabana was particularly disturbed about one in which the inmate may have been innocent.  He said, "[H]owever we do it, in the name of justice, in the name of law and order, in the name of retribution, you ... do not have the right to ask me, or any prison official, to bloody my hands with an innocent person’s blood.” He spent many years speaking about his views on capital punishment in classrooms, public forums, and before state legislators. Cabana believed the death penalty is not a deterrent, is expensive to maintain, and is an inhumane form of punishment for those who face it and for those who have to carry it out. He noted, “There is a part of the warden that dies with his prisoner.”

After FBI Revelations, Mississippi Court Reverses Itself And Grants DNA Testing

After earlier voting to deny death row inmate Willie Manning access to DNA testing, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed itself on July 23 and cleared the way for the testing of evidence in Manning's case. Manning has maintained his innocence since his 1994 conviction of the murders of two college students. His renewed request for testing was supported by letters from the Department of Justice and the FBI, which are conducting a review of forensic testimony by FBI experts. They have found 27 death penalty cases, including Manning's, that may have included erroneous testimony. Manning came within hours of execution on May 7, but the Mississippi Supreme Court finally granted a stay after hearing from the Justice Department about errors at Manning's trial. The order gives Manning 60 days to ask a county judge to grant DNA and fingerprint testing. Tucker Carrington, Director of the Mississippi Innocence Project, said of the decision, "I feel like Mississippi stepped back from the precipice, regardless of the results … by allowing the testing and avoiding becoming one of a few if not the first state ever to ignore ... the probative value of post conviction DNA evidence."

FBI To Examine 27 Death Penalty Cases For Potentially Inaccurate Testimony

A Federal Bureau of Investigation review of more than 21,000 cases has revealed 27 death penalty cases in which the FBI's forensic experts may have exaggerated the scientific conclusions that could be drawn from their testimony, mistakenly linking defendants to crimes they may not have committed. It is possible that some of these cases involve inmates who have already been executed. Under particular scrutiny is testimony regarding hair evidence. Although FBI laboratory reports have long stated that positive identifications could not be made through hair association, several agents testified that different hairs could be identified as coming from the same person with near certainty. The FBI is working with the Department of Justice, the Innocence Project, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to identify troublesome cases, and has agreed to notify both prosecutors and defendants if they find that agents made mistakes in testimony or reports. The Department of Justice will also waive deadlines and other rules that restrict appeals and test DNA evidence if requested by a judge or prosecutor. Peter Neufeld, co-founder of the Innocence Project, called the review a “major step forward to improve the criminal justice system and the rigor of forensic science in the United States.” The review is still in its early stages, but has already led to a stay of execution for Willie Manning (pictured) in Mississippi. In Manning's trial, an FBI agent had testified that a hair from the crime scene belonged to Manning. The FBI later admitted that the testimony "exceeded the limits of the science," and a stay of execution was granted.

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