The latest edition of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Death Row, USA showed an ongoing decline in the size of the death row population. The number of prisoners on death row decreased from 3,070 on January 1, 2014, to 3,054 on April 1. The new total represented a 12% drop from 10 years earlier, when the death row population was 3,487. California continued to have the largest death row, with 743 inmates, followed by Florida (404), Texas (276), Alabama (201), and Pennsylvania (194). The states with the highest percentage of minorities on death row were Delaware (78%) and Texas (72%), among states with at least 10 inmates. The total death row population was 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races. Only 1.9% of death row prisoners were female.
A recent study by researchers at Cornell Law School found that the gender of the murder victim may influence whether a defendant receives the death penalty. Using data from 1976 to 2007 in Delaware, the study found that in cases with female victims, 47.1% resulted in death sentences, while in those involving male victims, only 32.3% were sentenced to death. The researchers looked at a number of factors other than the victim's gender that might have affected sentencing decisions, including the heinousness of the crime, whether there was a sexual element to the murder, and the relationship between defendant and victim. The study found that some of the gender effect in sentencing could be explained by factors other than just the gender of the victim. Crimes involving sexual violence were more likely to result in a death sentence, as were crimes in which the victim and defendant knew one another, and victims of both of those types of crimes are more likely to be women.
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.
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.
On February 5, Texas is scheduled to execute Suzanne Basso. Basso would become the 14th woman executed in the United States since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. Basso is confined to a wheel chair and has a history of mental illness. Basso was convicted of murdering a mentally disabled man, ostensibly for insurance money. Others convicted in the offense did not receive the death penalty. A recent article in the Arizona Republic noted an unusually high number of captial prosecutions in that state. There are 2 women on Arizona's death row and 3 more are facing capital trials or re-trials. Elizabeth Rapaport, a law professor at the University of New Mexico, explained the low number of women on death row nationally: “The death penalty is mostly about crimes against strangers. That really frightens people,” she said. Those crimes often include rapes and robberies, “and women just don’t do those kind of crimes.”