By Jack Elliott Jr.
JACKSON – A death row inmate who prosecutors say recruited her son in a plot to kill her husband will get a new trial, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled Monday in a rare order for a prisoner awaiting execution.
Michelle Byrom, now 57, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2000 in Tishomingo County in the killing of her husband, Edward “Eddie” Byrom Sr., and for recruiting her son in the plot. Byrom Sr. was fatally shot on June 4, 1999, at the couple’s home in Iuka.
Byrom’s attorneys say they have new evidence in the case, and Byrom now argues her son committed the slaying. She argues in court briefs that her son confessed in conversations with a forensic psychologist. She argues the statements were discussed with the trial judge but were never revealed to Michelle Byrom or her attorneys before her trial. She also says the psychologist was not allowed to testify about them.
In the high court’s two-page order, Justice Josiah D. Coleman said the original trial judge, Circuit Judge Thomas J. Gardner, will not preside over Byrom’s re-trial. Coleman said the circuit court in Tishomingo County will assign another judge to the case.
The high court did not elaborate on how it reached its decision. Coleman said, however, the high court’s decision was “extraordinary and extremely rare in the context of a petition for leave to pursue post-conviction relief.”
Mississippi has one other woman on death row, but the state has not executed a woman since 1944.
State Attorney General Jim Hood did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
David Voisin, a Jackson attorney working with Michelle Byrom’s legal team, said in a statement Monday that the decision gives Byrom “a fair opportunity to have her case heard in court.
“Michelle suffered extreme sexual and physical abuse from an early age and throughout her marriage. We are pleased that Ms. Byrom will now have the opportunity to present the overwhelming evidence that she is innocent of murder-for-hire,” Voisin said.
State and federal courts have in the past denied Byrom’s arguments that she should not be put to death because she was sexually and physically abused by her husband.
Hood asked in February for the court to set Byrom’s execution for this past week. The Supreme Court denied that request last Thursday.
Prosecutors said Michelle Byrom killed her husband of 20 years for money, and that she planned to pay a hit man $15,000 with proceeds from the estate, estimated at more than $350,000.
In a rare move, she asked Gardner, instead of the jury, to decide whether she should serve life in prison or be put to death. Gardner sentenced her to death.
Eddie Byrom Jr. testified against his mother during the trial as part of a plea bargain. He later pleaded guilty to several charges in the murder-for-hire scheme, including conspiracy to commit murder. Gardner sentenced him to 50 years in prison with 20 years suspended.
Joseph Dale Gillis, who was described in court documents as the hit man, pleaded guilty to lesser charges of conspiracy to commit capital murder and accessory after the fact. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Byrom Jr. testified that his mother asked him to talk to some of his friends about killing his father. He said she would pay $10,000 in the murder-for-hire scheme with the money to come from an expected insurance policy.
Michelle Byrom argued her son told the psychologist that he had been physically and emotionally abused by his father and that he shot his father for his own reasons.
Hood has said Michelle Byrom has run out of appeals. He said in court briefs that she was arguing that her attorney didn’t do a good job – an issue Hood said was addressed in past appeals and denied. The attorney general’s office said Byrom cannot argue issues that never came up at trial.