Michelle Byrom was supposed to be the first woman executed in Mississippi in 70 years. Now she may walk free. What happened?

There may be a gender bias in who we execute in the United States, and this story out of Mississippi may well underscore that as well. Here are the basics of her case: her husband, who had been abusive, was murdered in June 1999; at the time, Byrom (the female) was in the hospital. Ultimately the case closed around her as a “ringleader” of sorts who hired her son and her son’s friend to actually do the killing. The narrative that’s emerged recently, though, in part because of newly-released letters, is that the mother took all the responsibility for the son. (The friend, Joey Gillis, is now thought to not even really be involved.) Byrom’s son went to jail, served nine years, and is now out. The Byrom case has now been overturned — she was scheduled to be executed on March 27th —  and now there’s a chance that a full-on life reversal could occur for Michelle Byrom:

“The big picture just finally overwhelmed the technical legal rules that allowed this thing to keep going,” says Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment. “It’s not outside the realm of possibility that this is an innocence case, where at one moment she could’ve been executed and now she may walk free – quite a disparity of outcomes.”

Pretty dramatic, for sure.

The case got a lot of attention, primarily for the standard reason that court cases/execution cases tend to get a lot of attention:

The case of Michelle Byrom contains the unholy trinity of constitutional flaws sadly so common in these capital cases. Her lawyers acted incompetently at trial, making one mistake after another. Exculpatory evidence that likely would have changed the outcome of her trial was hidden from her by her trial judge, and perhaps by prosecutors as well. Dealing with co-defendants, prosecutors played a form of musical chairs with the facts and with the charges. The only thing missing from the usual equation here is race, but it was replaced by a callous disregard, at all levels of law, for the impact of domestic abuse upon this doomed family.

In terms of the “doomed family” narrative, it should be noted that the relationship between Byrom and her now-deceased husband began when he was 31 and she was 15 (errrr). Throughout her life, she was diagnosed with several mental illnesses and had, at one point, consumed rat poison.

It’s now possible that prosecutors don’t view this as a “coherent case” anymore, and she may walk 14 years after being painted as the “ringleader” here. It’s all a bit up in the air.

Two cents here: this was a mentally-ill woman who had suffered abuse and didn’t actually pull the trigger. I’ve seen this described on Google+ as “gravely inhumane” (the idea that she was going to be executed); I don’t know if I’d go that far. I don’t think she should be executed, especially in the light of new information, but I also think her original lawyers should have been able to get her off (weep for the legal system). It seems like this is a story of a deeply messed-up family that managed to escape some of its demons through murder; you can ignore the fact that stuff like that happens every day in the world, or you can realize it from afar and hope it never happens to you (which is ideally the option most of us choose). Regardless, it’s an interesting, dramatic case and Byrom likely won’t be executed (ultimately a good thing), which means we’ll stay on 14 female executions since 1976. The death penalty is insanely demographically troubled (although in this case, it does look like MS got it right).



Ted Bauer


  1. I’ve been enjoying your posts about true crime over the past day – but, I find it interesting that after post after post of women dead or missing due to the jealousy/control-freak-nature/whatever sick issue a male in their life had (or a male-total-stranger), that you begin this post about a convicted female criminal pointing out the possibility of a gender bias in relation to the death penalty. Yeah, we womens, we gets alllll the breaks in this life, don’t we?

    • I see your point there, and I apologize. However, there still might be a gender bias as relates to the death penalty — but I don’t mean that as necessarily a “good thing.”

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