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?”