By Jack Elliott Jr.
JACKSON – The U.S. Supreme Court will consider Jan. 10 whether to hear an appeal from a woman on Mississippi’s death row who is seeking a new trial in the slaying of her husband based on claims that she was abused.
Court officials say a decision could be announced shortly after the court conference.
Michelle Byrom says she deserves a new trial because her original lawyer failed to present what could have been mitigating evidence of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband, as well as physical abuse as a child. A national organization representing battered women has filed a friend of the court brief in Byrom’s support.
Prosecutors argue that the abuse issue was raised at her trial and was considered by the same judge who sentenced her to death. Both state and federal courts have already denied Byrom’s appeal for a new trial.
Court records show Edward Byrom Sr., an electrician, was shot June 4, 1999, at the couple’s home in Iuka, in Tishomingo County. Prosecutors say Michelle Byrom planned to pay a hit man $15,000 with proceeds from a $150,000 insurance policy, and that she checked herself into a hospital on the day of the killing to provide herself with an alibi. Her son confessed to helping her plot the killing and testified against his mother.
Byrom, now 56, was convicted of capital murder in 2000. In a rare move, she asked Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner, instead of the jury, to decide whether she should serve life in prison or be put to death. Gardner sentenced her to death. She is one of two women and 50 inmates all together currently on death row in Mississippi.
Byrom appealed to a federal judge in Mississippi in 2011 and before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans earlier this year. She lost both appeals.
In their rulings, the judge and the 5th Circuit said it appeared Byrom’s lawyer was making a strategic decision to not call witnesses during the sentencing.
The 5th Circuit, in its ruling, said Byrom’s attorney apparently withheld the testimony to use it later in what he anticipated would be a second trial.
The attorney general’s office has argued that psychiatrists’ reports filed with the state court covered Byrom’s history of abuse by her stepfather and later by her husband. The attorney general said the testimony of witnesses would unlikely have added anything to the medical records.
The National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women in Philadelphia, Pa., said in a friend of the court brief that the actions by Byrom’s attorney were “a complete dereliction of the obligation” to represent Byrom’s interests.