Amid Unavailability of Lethal Injection Drugs, States Push Legal Limits to Carry Out Executions

"Over time lethal injection has become only more problematic and chaotic,” Deborah W. Denno, a professor at Fordham Law School, told the New York Times, summarizing the ongoing battles that have led states to adopt new drug sources or alternative methods of execution. Several states have obtained or sought drugs using sources that may violate pharmaceutical regulations. For the execution of Alfredo Prieto, Virginia obtained pentobarbital from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which purchased it from a compounding pharmacy whose identity is shielded by the state's secrecy law. "Even if the transactions between states do not comply with law, there is no recourse for death-sentenced prisoners," said Megan McCracken, an expert in lethal injection at the Death Penalty Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law. Both Nebraska and Ohio received warnings from the Food and Drug Administration that their attempts to purchase sodium thiopental from overseas suppliers violated federal law regarding the importation of drugs. Oklahoma executed Charles Warner in violation of its own execution protocol, substituting an unauthorized chemical, potassium acetate, for the potassium chloride its regulations require. Other states have turned to alternative execution methods: Tennessee reauthorized use of the electric chair, while Oklahoma passed a bill to make nitrogen gas asphyxiation its backup method. Louisiana prison officials also recommended using nitrogen gas, but the state has not taken action on that recommendation. The scramble for lethal injection drugs has delayed executions across the country. A challenge to Mississippi's protocol has halted executions until at least next year. A Montana judge put executions on hold because the state's proposed drug cocktail violated state law, and either the drugs that comply with state law are not produced in the U.S. and may not be imported or the manufacturer refuses to sell the drug for executions. In Oklahoma, the Attorney General requested an indefinite hold in order to review lethal injection procedures after the state obtained the wrong drug for the execution of Richard Glossip.

Former Death Row Inmate Michelle Byrom Released from Mississippi Prison

Michelle Byrom (pictured, seated) was released from prison in Mississippi on June 26 after spending 16 years behind bars, 14 of them on death row, for the murder of her husband. Byrom maintains her innocence for the crime, but agreed to an Alford plea -- which means that she pleaded no contest to the charges against her -- in exchange for her release. In 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed Byrom's conviction and death sentence and ordered a new trial, citing numerous problems in her case. Byrom's attorneys failed to present any mitigating evidence, and the jury was never told that Byrom's son, Junior, had confessed to killing his father. Junior initially told police that his mother had hired someone to kill his father, but later wrote in a letter, "You are all I have, and they're trying to take that away from me now, but Mom I'm gonna tell you right now who killed Dad 'cause I'm sick and tired of all the lies. I did, and it wasn't for money, it wasn't for all the abuse — it was because I can't kill myself." Junior pleaded guilty to conspiring in the murder, was sentenced to 30 years, and received a supervised release in 2013. John White, one of Byrom's attorneys, said of her release, "It's been a long arduous journey. The outcome is appropriate, given the history of the case."

Charges Dropped Against Willie Manning; Becomes 153rd Death Row Exoneree

On April 21, Oktibbeha County (Mississippi) District Attorney Forrest Allgood announced that he would drop charges against death row inmate Willie Manning. In February, the Mississippi Supreme court granted Manning a new trial, saying that key evidence was withheld. Justice Michael K. Randolph wrote, "The State violated Manning's due-process rights by failing to provide favorable, material evidence." A witness testified that he saw Manning enter the victims' apartment, but police records that were withheld from the defense show the apartment from which he claimed to have seen Manning was vacant at the time, and records from the apartment complex did not list the witness as a tenant. The witness later recanted his testimony, saying he feared he would be charged with the crime if he didn't testify. Manning remains on death row for a separate crime, but the evidence against Manning in that case is hair and ballistics analysis from the FBI that was recently identified as seriously flawed. Manning came within hours of being executed in that case, receiving a stay of execution only after the FBI sent separate letters disclosing flaws in its ballistics and hair comparison testimony.

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.