Author Archives: Mark Godsey

The Ohio Innocence Project Joins In Celebration of 2nd Annual International Wrongful Conviction Day

On October 2, 2015 the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law and the newly formed OIP-u will unite with dozens of other organizations around the world to commemorate the 2nd Annual International Wrongful Conviction Day. This day is dedicated to recognizing those whose lives have been adversely impacted by wrongful conviction and to educating the public on the causes, consequences and complications of wrongful conviction.

The celebration will mark the launch of OIP-u, Ohio’s Collegiate Network of Innocence Advocates. The mission of OIP-u is to support the Ohio Innocence OIP-u Official LogoProject in its effort to free the innocent and prevent wrongful conviction by educating the public about its causes and consequences. OIP-u provides a way for undergraduate and graduate students all over Ohio to come together and fight for the freedom of the many innocent men and women incarcerated in this state. OIP-u and the Ohio Innocence Project will be holding events at several universities across Ohio with newly formed OIP-u chapters, featuring OIP exonerees and staff members.

Upcoming Wrongful Conviction Day Events in Ohio

October 1st
Ohio University 5-7pm Bentley Hall, Room 136
Speakers: Ohio Exoneree, Ray Towler, and OIP Staff Member, Liza Dietrich
Hosted by OIP-u Ohio University Chapter

October 2nd
The University of Dayton 3:30-5:30pm O’Leary Auditorium in Miriam Hall Room 119
Speakers: Ohio Exoneree, Robert McClendon, and OIP Director, Mark Godsey
Hosted by OIP-u University of Dayton Chapter

The Ohio State University Noon-1:30pm Saxbe Auditorium located in Drinko Hall
Wrongful Conviction Day Panel featuring Emmy Award winning correspondent, Erin Moriarty ’77, CBS News; Joanna Feigenbaum ’11, Ohio Public Defender Wrongful Conviction Project; Jennifer Bergeron, Ohio Innocence Project attorney; and Clarence Elkins, an Ohio Exoneree. The panel will be moderated by Nikki Baszynski ’13, also of the Ohio Public Defender’s office.
Hosted by the Ohio Public Defender and the OIP-u Ohio State Chapter

For a complete list of International events visit:

#WCDOhio2015 #IWCD2015

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Ohio Exoneree Ricky Jackson Receives Standing Ovation at the MET

Last Saturday Ohio Exoneree Ricky Jackson participated in a TEDxMET performance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Ricky spoke about his love for art, one that developed when he was a child and helped him endure 39 years of wrongful incarceration. The audience was visibly moved by Ricky’s words which were met with a standing ovation.

Limor Tomer, the General Manager of Concerts & Lectures at the Metropolitan Art Museum, had the following to say about Ricky’s performance:

Yesterday Ricky inspired, touched, moved and brought the house down at TEDxMET.  His depth, humility, intelligence, perceptiveness, heart and soul shone through and touched everyone very deeply.

Click here to view Ricky’s 12 minute segment via the Met’s website. You can view all of the TEDxMET participants here.

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Four Decades, Three Trials, Two Death Sentences, One Exoneree. Almost.

From: Texas Monthly

Thirty-eight years after Kerry Max Cook was convicted of murder, he continues to seek exoneration. And now he might finally have a chance to convince the courts of his innocence. – See more at:

Editor’s note: This story has been updated below to reflect that Smith County district judge Christi Kennedy recused herself from Kerry Max Cook’s case. A new judge has been appointed to consider Cook’s writ: Jack Carter, age 72, from Texarkana. Carter is a Democrat who last year retired from the Sixth District Court of Appeals, which handles appeals in cases from 19 Northeast Texas counties—but not Smith County, where Cook’s trials have taken place.

The long, strange ordeal of Kerry Max Cook—perhaps the most bizarre series of capital murder proceedings in Texas history—just got longer. And stranger. Cook, convicted of the 1977 rape, mutilation, and murder of Linda Jo Edwards, spent 20 years on death row. While there, he was stabbed and repeatedly raped. The abuses led him to twice attempt suicide. He always maintained his innocence, and though his death sentences were overturned—twice—and the people who prosecuted him were reprimanded by a high court for extensive malfeasance and he was eventually freed from death row in 1997, he has never been exonerated. That’s because back in 1999, on the eve of an unprecedented fourth capital murder trial, he took a “no contest” plea. So even as he became a celebrity—writing a book about his experience, becoming a subject of a popular play and movie called The Exonerated, giving anti-death penalty speeches and hanging out with anti-death penalty celebrities—Cook is still considered a convicted killer. Especially in Tyler, Texas, where the murder took place.

And so today he ventured there again, at least legally, accompanied by lawyers from the Innocence Project and the Innocence Project of Texas, who filed two motions at the Smith County courthouse: a writ of habeas corpus to get his murder conviction thrown out and a motion to recuse the judge who would actually rule on the writ.

To win on a habeas writ, a person must have new evidence contradicting his verdict. Cook has that: DNA tests on 15 crime scene items, none of which show his blood or semen anywhere on or near the victim. In fact, these tests actually show a profile of another man: the victim’s lover, a married man with whom she’d been having a tempestuous affair. While this isn’t mind-blowing news—DNA tests from 1999 also excluded Cook and included the lover—this is the first time the test results have actually gone before a court. And they could eventually lead to a new trial for Cook.

Cook’s ordeal began with the bloody rape and murder of Edwards, a young secretary who lived in the same Tyler apartment complex he did. Over the next 16 years, prosecutors took Cook to court three times, even though they didn’t have much evidence: fingerprints on a patio door, a jailhouse informant who said that Cook told him he killed her, the recollections of a gay man who said that on the night of the murder he and Mr. Cook had had sex and watched a movie that involved a cat torture scene. Prosecutors came up with the bizarre but effective theory that Cook, whom they said was a latent homosexual, was aroused by the torture scene and then left the apartment and raped and killed Edwards, cutting off body parts (including the inside wall of her vagina), which he then stuffed in a stocking of hers that had gone missing.

But all of the evidence used against Cook proved to be problematic or downright fraudulent. It turned out that three different witnesses had testified to a grand jury that Cook told them he had met Edwards three days before the murder and had gone to her apartment, where they made out on the couch, which explained the fingerprints (prosecutors didn’t tell the defense about the witnesses). The jailhouse snitch confessed that he lied because he had been offered a reduced sentence for a murder conviction. The man who testified he’d had sex with Cook had previously told a grand jury there was no sex—and that Mr. Cook had ignored the movie in the first place. And the missing stocking that was supposed to be full of souvenir body parts was found in 1992 rolled up in a pants leg of Edwards’s jeans by a juror who’d asked to look closely at the trial exhibits—15 years after the murder.

Cook’s first conviction in 1978 was overturned on a technicality. The second trial, in 1992, ended in a mistrial. The third two years later led to a second guilty verdict and death sentence, but in 1996 the Court of Criminal Appeals overturned it too, thundering that “prosecutorial and police misconduct has tainted this entire matter from the outset.” A concurring opinion said, “The state’s misconduct in this case does not consist of an isolated incident or the doing of a police officer, but consists of the deliberate misconduct by members of the bar, representing the state, over a fourteen-year period—from the initial discovery proceedings in 1977, through the first trial in 1978, and continuing with the concealment of the misconduct until 1992.”

It looked like Cook was finally on his way to exoneration, and he was released on bond in 1997. But Smith County wasn’t finished and set about trying him for a record fourth time. As the February 1999 trial date approached, prosecutors made him an offer: plead guilty in exchange for 20 years (which he had already served), and the charges would be dropped. Cook refused. He was innocent, he said.

Then, on February 4, a DPS analyst, examining Edwards’s underwear, found a previously unseen semen stain; the state moved to run modern DNA testing on the stain as well as a hair found on her buttock. According to reporter David Hanners of the Dallas Morning News, Assistant DA David Dobbs told him that the semen “could only have been left by the killer.” On the morning of jury selection, the DA shocked Cook with a final offer: plead no-contest and the case would be dismissed. Such a plea had never been allowed in a Texas death penalty case before, but with it, Cook could maintain his innocence (even though he wouldn’t be legally exonerated), while the state would keep its conviction. Cook’s advisors—suspicious that prosecutors were panicking because they knew his DNA would not be found in the sample–urged him to go to trial. Cook, though, terrified of going before a Smith County jury again and returning to death row, took the plea.

He should have waited. The DNA results came back two months later, and, as Cook had always insisted, it wasn’t him. In fact, the semen came from James Mayfield, a former college dean with whom Edwards (a secretary in his division) had been having a stormy affair. Three weeks before she was murdered, in fact, she had tried to kill herself, and when news of the attempt became public, both were fired from their jobs. Not only did Mayfield and Edwards see each other several times in her final days, according to a friend of hers who talked with her five hours before she was murdered, she had informed Mayfield she was going to date other men—and he did not take the news well. On that last night, her roommate saw a man standing in the doorway of her bedroom; she told police and others that it was Mayfield (though more than a year later she would change her mind and testify that it was Cook).

Cook was ecstatic with the results, but the Smith County DA’s office now said that they just confirmed what everyone knew—Edwards and Mayfield had a sexual relationship. Though Dobbs had told Hanners the DNA was essentially the smoking gun, now he told another reporter, “It’s irrelevant. Cook has been convicted of the murder.” And indeed he had.

Cook tried to move on with his life—and had a terrible time of it. He was free but still had a murder conviction on his record. “I couldn’t get a job, couldn’t sign a lease,” he said later. “We’ve had to move five times because people would find out about me. One woman threatened to put up posters in the neighborhood saying ‘Convicted murderer lives here.’” He couldn’t vote, own a gun, or run for office. In 2009 Cook befriended Marc McPeak, a civil lawyer who offered to help him. Three years later, McPeak, working with Dallas lawyer and Innocence Project of Texas member Gary Udashen, filed for DNA testing on other crime scene evidence—including the bloody knife. The lawyers also moved to recuse the judge who would rule on the testing. That judge was Jack Skeen, who had prosecuted Cook twice. Judge John Ovard okayed the testing and the recusal, sending all further matters to be decided by fellow Smith County district judge Christi Kennedy.

Next Udashen contacted the Innocence Project, which has used DNA testing to exonerate more than 300 people nationwide. Fifteen items from the crime scene, including Edwards’s stained bra, her jeans, cigarette butts, and blood on the knife, were sent to Cellmark Forensics lab near Dallas. They were tested over the next two and a half years; the final results came in March. The results corroborated the 1999 findings: None of Cook’s DNA was found on anything at the bloody crime scene. More elaborate DNA testing on the underwear, though, got an even stronger profile of Mayfield.

The DNA evidence is the biggest part of the writ of habeas corpus, and the lawyers use it to make the claim that Cook is actually innocent. To prevail in such a case, someone like Cook has to show that his innocence has been unquestionably established with newly discovered evidence, and the lawyers are banking on the fact that none of Cook’s DNA evidence has ever been brought into a court, not even the 1999 results. Cook’s lawyers are also using Texas’s “junk science writ,” passed in 2013, which says that new forensic science can be used to successfully attack a conviction; all a petitioner has to do to get a new trial is show that with the new scientific evidence, it’s more likely than not that a jury wouldn’t have convicted him. If Cook’s trial were held today, with the DNA results pointing to the victim’s ex-lover, would he still be found guilty? Almost certainly not.

The Innocence Project also alleges that prosecutors knew when they made the “no contest” plea offer that Mayfield’s DNA profile would show up in the semen, not Cook’s—and urge an evidentiary hearing to look into the matter. And the lawyers attack law enforcement for destroying evidence, in particular the hair found on Edwards’s buttock, which doubtless came from the killer. Prosecutors knew the hair wasn’t from Cook or Edwards–an expert had already testified, back in 1978, that it couldn’t have come from either person.

But in early 2002, two years after the results of the DNA testing pointed to Mayfield, Tyler police destroyed the hair. This wasn’t just an unbelievably wrongheaded action, it was also against the law, violating Chapter 64, the law the legislature had passed in 2001 that allowed inmates to ask for post-conviction testing. It also forbade law enforcement from destroying any piece of biological evidence that was eligible for testing. When police destroyed that hair, they destroyed an important clue to the killer of Linda Jo Edwards.

Almost four decades into his ordeal, Cook, aided by the powerful, well-funded Innocence Project, has his best shot at vindication. But given (in the CCA’s words), “the deliberate misconduct by members of the bar, representing the state, over a fourteen-year period,” the one thing he says he hasn’t had is an objective hearing of his claims.

And so his lawyers filed a second motion, this one to take the case out of the court of Judge Christi Kennedy, one of four district judges in Smith County. Tyler is a small town, they say, with a close-knit legal community, and there’s no way Kennedy can objectively adjudge a writ of habeas corpus dealing with the most controversial case in the history of Smith County—she’s just too close to the major players. For example, one of Kennedy’s fellow district judges, Carole Clark, is married to A.D. Clark, the first DA to prosecute Cook. Another fellow judge is Skeen, who, of course, prosecuted Cook in his second and third trials. Kennedy’s late husband Richard was an ADA under Skeen during Cook’s second trial. The Texas Rules of Civil Procedure say, “A judge shall recuse himself in any proceeding in which: (a) his impartiality might reasonably be questioned; (b) he has a personal bias or prejudice concerning the subject matter or a party…” Could Kennedy be fair in ruling on the possible innocence of a man whom her friends and peers tried for so long to execute?

There is precedent for judges stepping aside when their impartiality—or just the appearance of favoritism—might become an issue. In 2010, before Michael Morton’s retrial in Williamson County, the judge set to hear the case, Billy Joe Stubblefield, recused himself when it became clear he was going to have to rule on charges of serious misconduct by former DA and current judge Ken Anderson, one of Stubblefield’s peers on the Williamson County bench. Stubblefield never gave a reason for his recusal, but one can surmise that he thought the public’s confidence in what was already a controversial trial would be higher if he didn’t oversee it.

Kennedy has three days to decide whether to recuse herself or to stay on and hear the case. Either way, the issue will go to Mary Murphy, presiding judge of the 1st Administrative Judicial Region in Dallas, which oversees Smith County. If Kennedy steps aside, Murphy will choose a replacement court and judge; if Kennedy refuses to recuse, Murphy will decide whether, in fact, she should or not. One way or another, Murphy will ultimately decide which judge—in which county—adjudicates the writ.

How much stranger could the case of Kerry Max Cook get? After 38 tortured years, everyone would like to see a fair, impartial, and totally normal end to it. But at this point, there’s only one way for that to happen: put Cook’s writ of habeas corpus—which contains compelling evidence that he is an innocent man—in front of fresh eyes, in a courthouse unsullied by the taint of bitter memories and years of deliberate misconduct.

UPDATE (9/18/15, 9:30 a.m.): Late on Thursday, Judge Christi Kennedy of the 114th Judicial District Court in Smith County voluntarily recused herself from considering the writ of habeas corpus filed by Kerry Max Cook earlier in the week. In addition to Monday’s writ application, Cook also filed a motion asking Kennedy to recuse herself from considering it, for the simple reason that she’s too close to the major players. Kennedy is one of only four district judges in Smith County—one of the others, Carole Clark, is married to A.D. Clark, the first DA to prosecute Cook, and another fellow judge is Jack Skeen, who also prosecuted Cook. A third deep connection is that Kennedy’s late husband Richard was an ADA under Skeen during Cook’s second trial. “For these reasons,” Cook’s motion read, “it would be unreasonable to expect any individual in Judge Kennedy’s position—particularly one who presently serves alongside Judge Skeen and Judge Clark in a small, four-district-judge courthouse—to serve as the trier of fact on these claims.”

In the order, Kennedy was insistent that the recusal motion had the facts wrong. “Having considered the motion,” she wrote, “the Court FINDS that factual allegations contained in the motion are false. The Court does not harbor any personal bias or prejudice against Applicant nor does the Court lack impartiality.” However, Kennedy writes, “the Court finds the interest of judicial economy along with the appearance of impropriety dictate the Court sua sponte recuse itself from any further proceedings in this case. So that all parties in this case will have confidence in a fair and impartial tribunal, the Court asks that the Presiding Judge of the First Administrative Region assign a judge to preside over this case.”

That judge is Mary Murphy, who lives in Dallas. She will choose which judge in which county will hear Cook’s writ of habeas corpus, in which he claims to be actually innocent of the murder of Linda Jo Edwards.

UPDATE (9/18/15, 12:00 p.m.): Mary Murphy, presiding judge of the 1st Administrative Judicial Region in Dallas, has appointed a judge to hear Kerry Max Cook’s writ of habeas corpus: Jack Carter, age 72, from Texarkana. Carter is a Democrat who last year retired from the Sixth District Court of Appeals, which handles appeals in cases from 19 Northeast Texas counties—but not Smith County, where Cook’s trials have taken place.

See more at:

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New Haven Prosecutors ask Judge to Set Aside Bobby Johnson’s Murder Conviction

New Haven Prosecutors made a rare request today that resulted in Bobby Johnson’s release from prison.

In a motion filed earlier this week, New Haven State’s Attorney Michael Dearington and Assistant State’s Attorney Timothy J. Sugrue, asked that Johnson’s 2007 murder conviction be set aside, explaining that the state no longer felt confident in the judgement.

The totality of the information developed to date, and presently available, while falling short of proof of actual innocence, has sufficiently undermined the state’s confidence in the judgment of conviction that justice is best served by setting that judgment aside and restoring the case to the Superior Court docket.

Dearington also agreed that Johnson’s confession, given when he was only 16 years old, “may not have been voluntary.”  According to Johnson’s attorneys, Kenneth Rosenthal and Darcy McGraw of the Connecticut Innocence Project, Johnson’s confession was coerced by detectives who falsified documents and suppressed evidence of alternate suspects. Now 25-years-old, Johnson served nearly a decade in prison before being released. He was sentenced to serve 38 years.

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Michelle Byrom Was Abused For Years & Then Almost Executed — But She’s Not The Only One

From: Refinery29

By: Vanessa Golembewski

In the tranquil town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, there’s a small house with an inviting backyard. There’s a sheepdog, Chelsea, who lovingly greets guests as soon as they get out of the car. There’s a porch full of garden knickknacks; faux frogs hidden in succulents, some tomatoes lined up underneath colorful wind chimes. And there, sitting peacefully in a wheelchair on a quiet July morning, is Michelle Byrom — a woman the state of Mississippi nearly executed — who is seeing her first few weeks of freedom after 15 years on death row.

Michelle’s story sounds like something out of a spy novel. She was convicted of a murder-for-hire plot against her abusive husband, Edward Byrom Sr., in 1999. According to prosecutors, Michelle paid Joey Gillis — a friend of her son — to murder Edward Sr. Her son, Edward Byrom Jr., confessed to shooting his father, unable to take his verbal, mental, and physical abuse any longer. But in an effort to protect Edward Jr., Michelle told law enforcement that she took full responsibility for her husband’s death.

Judge Thomas Gardner convicted Michelle of capital murder in 2000. If her husband was so abusive, prosecutors argued, why didn’t she just leave him? Judge Gardner sentenced her to death by lethal injection. She spent 15 years on death row at Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. During that time, she maintained her innocence. Her son even confessed to shooting his father to a court-appointed psychiatrist. But that confession was not weighed at trial. Edward Jr. even pointed police to the murder weapon, testing positive for gunpowder residue on his hands and shirt. Yet Michelle remained on death row. Then, hours before her scheduled execution in March 2014, the Mississippi Supreme Court — at last acknowledging the incompetence of her defense and spotting exculpatory evidence that wasn’t admitted at trial — vacated her conviction. Michelle was transferred to Tishomingo County Jail in Iuka, where she awaited a new trial. Except, she never had that trial. Her attorneys told her if she plead no contest on June 26, she could walk away right then and there. So, she did.

Days after Michelle’s release, I sent her a letter to a P.O. box listed through one of her support groups. I asked if I could come interview her, and two weeks later she called me to say she was ready to tell her story. So I flew down to Nashville, drove a rental car to Murfreesboro, and got to know a woman who’s seeing what the world looks like after 15 years cut off from society.

The world has changed a lot since Michelle was first incarcerated. She’s still in a period of adjustment during which she’s surprised by little things most people never notice, like the carpool lane on the highway or the disappearance of video rental stores. But, despite all this change and progress, for women like Michelle who have suffered — or are suffering — domestic violence in Mississippi, the world looks as bleak as ever.

The Night Of The Arrest
After Edward Sr. was found dead, the sheriff came to question Michelle, who was in the hospital being treated for pneumonia and under heavy medication. “Listen, we are going to be able to pull enough together,” the sheriff told her, according to official case documents. “Don’t leave [Edward Jr.] hanging out there to bite the bullet.” Michelle — in a drug-induced haze and wanting to protect her son — took the blame. “I will take all the responsibility,” she told the sheriff, and made up something about asking Gillis to shoot Edward Sr. She was arrested there in the hospital and brought to prison wearing just two hospital gowns: one on her front and one on her back.

The details of her trial are disheartening. No witnesses — including a court-ordered psychiatrist — were called to testify in her defense. Michelle claims she knew some of the jury members personally. (Her son played baseball with one male juror. Another female juror was in Michelle’s Sunday school class.) Key evidence — like her son’s confession to the murder — was never shown to the jury. In an article he penned for The Jackson Free Press days before Michelle’s scheduled execution, former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz wrote that Michelle’s trial was “riddled with errors.” Diaz’s assessment of Michelle’s unfair trial is lengthy, but the highlights include that “basic trial and appellate responsibilities were neglected or inadequately performed,” “necessary objections were not made,” and — perhaps most upsetting — “the appeal filed on [Michelle’s] behalf relies in large part on unsupported assertions and vague innuendo, and falls below what I consider professionally acceptable.”

Had the state Supreme Court not overturned her conviction, Michelle would have been the first woman executed in the state of Mississippi since World War II.

A Life Of Abuse (& Where Mississippi Fails Women)
By the age of 15, Michelle had left her home in Yonkers, NY, to become a stripper. Shortly after, when Michelle was 17, she met Edward Sr., who was 32 at the time. “Back then, I was looking for a father figure,” she told me. They dated, had Edward Jr., and were married five years later. But, before long, her marriage became a relationship in which she was horrifically abused and isolated from her friends and family.

“He made sure I didn’t have money. He made sure I kept away from my family, [by] hundreds of miles,” Michelle said. She didn’t bring any of her female friends around because, when she did, Edward Sr. always “wanted something to do with them,” she explained to me. “And I don’t really know what else I could have done. Anywhere I would have went he would have found me, and he would have hurt anybody that tried to help me.”

Michelle’s stories about her husband are hard to stomach. In addition to regular beatings, isolation from her friends and family, and the overarching fear Edward Sr. instilled in her, to keep her from leaving, he forced her to have sex with other men and videotaped it for his own pleasure. Michelle claims he once suspected her of having an affair with the exterminator, so he forced her to ingest a block of rat poison, pouring whiskey down her throat after each bite.

It’s a shocking story, but Keith A. Caruso, MD, a forensic psychiatrist, claimed in his court-ordered psychiatric assessment that Michelle has Munchausen syndrome, after having been abused all her life, and was ingesting the poison herself in an attempt to escape her abuser. This is common in abuse victims, so it’s understandable that this was his conclusion.

I asked him if, hypothetically, there’s a possibility that a domestic violence victim’s symptoms could simply present as Munchausen’s, but in reality be extreme abuse. “Hypothetically, symptoms could be caused by abuse,” he told me over the phone. “But if that is the case, the person should have told their lawyers, as it could possibly be considered imperfect self-defense.” Michelle couldn’t possibly have known that legal intricacy, but it points to yet another item on a list of things Michelle’s defense team could have done better.

Compounding that is the fact that Mississippi is a notoriously difficult place to find help as an abused woman. In fact, it’s not a great place to be a woman in general. In 2012, a study based on data from the National Women’s Law Center, National Partnership for Women & Families, and the National Network to End Domestic Violence named Mississippi the worst state for women to live.

According to this study, 22% of women were living below the poverty line and only 21% were college-educated. Mississippi is one of four states to have never had a woman in Congress or as governor. The state legislature is just 15% female. The state also has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy, but just one abortion clinic — on the brink of closure. A 2014 Violence Policy Report named Mississippi the fifth in the country for the most women murdered by men.

Michelle was aware of the limited resources that were available to her in 1999 in Mississippi, but she said there was “no way” she could have utilized them. “It would require me to leave the house, and anybody that helped me in any way would be in serious trouble,” Michelle said. “He had ways to get to people.”

And yet, the prosecution’s major argument against Michelle was one that’s unfortunately familiar to many survivors of domestic violence: If your husband was abusing you, why didn’t you just leave? Why didn’t you just get out of it? Michelle did leave — many times. But, Edward Sr. would always find her. “And when the beatdowns came, they were bad.” Even afterward, her doctors — all male — would just advise her to go to a shelter.

But, in 1999, the only domestic violence shelter serving Tishomingo County, where Michelle lived, is in Tupelo — over an hour’s drive from her home in Iuka. And in 1999 — a time when the internet and cell phones were not readily available, especially to women in Michelle’s circumstances— the best way for Michelle to get help would be through her friends and neighbors. Even today, in 2015, that shelter in Tupelo remains the only one in the county.

To put that in perspective, consider this: Vermont, which has a population of about 600,000, has 12 domestic violence shelters. Mississippi, with a population of almost three million, has 13 shelters.

In Mississippi, doctors are always mandated reporters for children, required to report to authorities when they believe abuse or neglect is at play. But, for adults, they’re only mandated reporters in certain circumstances. Those circumstances are if there’s a gunshot or knifing, or if the adult is deemed a “vulnerable person.” That is, if they are mentally or physically handicapped. Doctors can also make decisions to report abuse on a case-by-case basis if they feel there’s a larger threat to the safety of the hospital or public safety in general. Otherwise, an adult woman with signs of abuse is considered capable of leaving an abusive relationship. Michelle, diagnosed as mentally ill by Dr. Caruso over the course of her trial, was never reported to authorities, likely lost in the shuffle of the many doctors she saw over the years — who were arguably the only people who could have realistically helped her.

Her Experience In Prison
With all this in mind, it’s clear that Michelle should never have been sent to death row. According to her, she’s not alone in her circumstances. She said it seemed like a lot of her fellow inmates were in prison for self-defense against their abusers. Michelle mentioned, for example, Rachel Moore — who’s currently serving a life sentence in Mississippi for shooting her abusive husband. After Rachel’s husband beat her one evening, she grabbed a shotgun. She fired a warning shot into the air and gave him several verbal warnings to stay away from her. When he continued to approach her, she shot him.

Judge Gardner was also the trial judge for Moore. “Judge Gardner has a big problem with domestic violence,” Michelle said. “I think he has a problem with females, period. I don’t know if he’s married or not. If he is, I feel sorry for his wife.”

Neither the Mississippi Attorney General’s office nor the Mississippi Department of Corrections could provide me with numbers regarding how many women are in Mississippi prisons for retaliating against their abusers. However, Amnesty International pointed me to a source that says, “85 to 90% of women in prison have a history of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including domestic violence, sexual violence, and child abuse.” According to the MSDOC, as of August 3, 2015, there are 1,722 women in Mississippi prisons.

Michelle’s conviction was overturned just hours before her scheduled execution in March 2014. She learned the news from Lisa Jo Chamberlin, the other woman on death row. “I came out of the shower and she said, ‘Shell, you’re on the news! You’re not gonna die! You got a new trial.’” Michelle didn’t believe her at first, but once she saw it on TV she knew it was real. “About five minutes later, here come the law library people with the papers, and there on the top: new trial. I told the woman, ‘Bend down here, I’m gonna give you a hug.’” Everybody in the zone celebrated.

That celebration speaks to a sort of tenuous camaraderie among the inmates. In fact, Michelle still keeps in touch with some of her former fellow inmates. She was fortunate to have a good relationship with both the guards and the other prisoners. “I never had to worry about getting attacked,” she said. “Most of the inmates and the guards had my back.”

Still, Michelle said she has no good memories of prison. But there were certainly moments when she laughed. Like one Halloween when she used her makeup kit to make her face look like that of a witch and scared a couple of the guards. Or the way she earned credits toward her seminary degree while serving her sentence. She recently finished all three seasons of Orange Is the New Black, which she says resembles nothing of real prison life. But she does identify with Red and the maternal role she sometimes plays to younger inmates. “The characters are pretty good.”

There were a lot of people pulling for Michelle’s release. The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty published a blog post campaigning for her removal from death row. A lengthy discussion of Michelle’s story appeared in The Atlantic. People who had never even met Michelle, but knew she wasn’t receiving justice, started Facebook groups in her support, like Justice for Michelle Byrom and Help Save Michelle Byrom.

Diaz, the former Mississippi Supreme Court Justice, was particularly active in getting Michelle’s conviction overturned. His opinion wasn’t considered in the Supreme Court’s upholding of Michelle’s sentencing, however. At the time, he was under indictment from federal prosecutors who were accusing him of bribery. He was later acquitted and cleared, but because of the pending investigation, his vote didn’t count and he was forced to step aside.

Diaz told me he wrote a dissent in 2003 pointing out the errors in her case, including the ineffectiveness of her attorneys and her lack of real representation. “It was shocking,” he told me over the phone. “Whoever represented her at trial did a horrible job.” He had similar words for whoever filed her first appeal. It wasn’t until her post-conviction proceedings that Diaz felt she finally had proper attorneys on her side. “There’s no doubt that, had she had adequate representation [earlier], she would never have received the death penalty in this case.” This opinion was later adopted by the majority.

Days before Michelle’s execution, a reporter from The Jackson Free Press asked Diaz if he’d like to write an article about the situation in his own words. “I had to speak out and say something,” Diaz said of his decision to write it. “I couldn’t just sit there and let the state of Mississippi execute a woman that I had previously thought didn’t deserve execution.” It isn’t lost on Diaz that 11 years is a long time to wait for another Supreme Court review. “That’s 11 years of this woman’s life spent on death row, when I think it could have been…she shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

After Michelle’s conviction was overturned in March 2014, she was transferred to Tishomingo County Jail, where she was to await a new trial. But, 15 months went by and no trial date was set. So when she was offered a no contest plea deal, she took it. For Michelle, that meant she didn’t get a guilty conviction, but is still considered a felon.

The Innocence Project, an organization that helps those who are wrongly imprisoned, usually only takes cases that can use DNA evidence to exonerate someone. So it wasn’t the right fit for Michelle. But its communications director Paul Cates was able to shed some light on why people like Michelle would inevitably take a no contest plea. “It’s an unfortunate case because they’re not really giving someone a real option there,” he told me. Michelle said she didn’t fully understand what it would mean to plead no contest. All she knew was that she could walk away right then and there. “It’s definitely an issue we’re concerned about, but at the end of the day it’s understandable how someone, after waiting for so many years and who’s been denied justice for so long, could take a plea against their best interest in order to get out of prison.” Michelle is a free woman, but is still seen as a felon because of her plea.

According to Amnesty International’s senior death penalty campaigner James Clark, nationally, the average time spent on death row is 20 to 25 years. Michelle spent just 15 there before the state of Mississippi was ready to execute her. In other states, like Virginia, it can be even faster — just six or seven years. Some say having a prisoner serve an unnecessary amount of time before executing them is like having them serve two sentences: one of many years in prison, another of death. Conversely, having more time before an execution would allow for potential exoneration.

Michelle’s story coincides with an important moment in the national conversation about the death penalty. Many lethal injection cases have been botched in recent years, according to Clark. Sometimes this means the person is experiencing pain, but showing no visible signs of it due to a paralyzing element in the drug. Other times this means the paralyzation didn’t take, and the person is showing outward signs of pain. “Most states have lost their supply of lethal injection drugs because many pharmaceutical companies that produce them have stopped manufacturing them, or have restricted their supply,” Clark told me on the phone. He said that, despite companies’ requests that these drugs not be used for the death penalty, the states’ departments of corrections do it anyway.

A New Beginning
When Michelle was released from prison on June 26, her brother Kenny picked her up. She moved in with him and his wife Paula in their home in Tennessee. (Though, on the way they stopped for a Whopper at Burger King — a meal Michelle said was “better than sex.”) Over a Bloomin’ Onion at The Outback Steakhouse — a snack high on Michelle’s bucket list — she talked about her readjustment to the outside world.

Indeed, the world looks different to her now, though not entirely unfamiliar. She’s been introduced to things like text messaging and Facebook. She has an email address and a Samsung tablet — her first-ever touchscreen device. One of her new favorite songs is Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass.” Why? “She’s bringing booty back.”

Still, her prison lifestyle lingers. Michelle eats usually only once a day, and sleeps just a few hours each night. She has Lupus and is mostly dependent on her wheelchair and her brother to get around. (She also doesn’t have a driver’s license.)

Because of her disability and her status as a felon, Michelle probably won’t find much work. And, at the age of 57, suffering from Lupus, perhaps she shouldn’t be expected to go out and find work.

Kenny and Paula’s home, and Michelle’s room in it, is much different from her maximum-security cell. Their walls are covered with pictures of their ever-growing family and inspirational quotes: Live, laugh, love reads one decoration.

She has laugh lines on her face from her nearly constant smile. She hopes to be a grandmother. She may attend her son’s wedding later this year.

She misses her husband at times. “When this all started happening, I kept thinking he was gonna pop out and say, ‘Haha, gotcha.’ This is some kind of joke,” she said. “I still think about him. We did have some good times.” That’s the kind of woman Michelle is: one who seeks out the silver lining, even when the cloud is feeding you rat poison.

I asked Michelle what advice she would give herself if she could go back to 20 years ago. “Watch what you wish for,” she said. “I wished that I were out of the situation I was in and it came through, just not the way I intended it to happen.” But even this grim truth was punctuated by her infectious laugh.

While in prison, she became quite spiritual. Part of that spirituality is her forgiveness of those who have wronged her. “I can forgive these people,” she said, “but I can’t forget. I do think that they’re going to have to ‘fess up to what they did, and they’re gonna have to face God one of these days.”

Michelle was told there isn’t any additional legal action she can take, since she pled no contest. I asked her if she’s considered filing a complaint against Judge Gardner to the Mississippi Commission for Judicial Review. “I was told it would be a waste of time,” she wrote to me in an email after our visit. “No judge is going to go against another judge.” Even the satisfaction of trying isn’t enough to tempt her, as she sees the state of Mississippi as an impenetrable force. “Who down South would go against a judge from the South?” she wrote.

Instead, Michelle is focusing her efforts on the positive things she can do to help others. She’s considering becoming a motivational speaker for those experiencing domestic violence. “I’d left many times, and why didn’t I just keep going?” she said. ”But just because I didn’t succeed doesn’t mean somebody else who tried couldn’t.”

Ultimately, Michelle is protective to the bone. It’s that very tendency to safeguard others that likely landed her in prison in the first place. And it’s that same instinct that made her ask, in our final email exchange, “Well, what did you think of poor Rachel Moore’s story?”

Monday’s Quick Clicks…