A Death Penalty Reprieve That Should Make You Think

Mississippi’s attorney general did everything he could to make sure Michelle Byrom would be executed on schedule last week.

Her husband was shot in bed in 1999. She couldn’t have pulled the trigger, because she was in a hospital with pneumonia at the time, but a jury convicted her of hiring a friend of her son to carry out the killing so she could collect insurance.

It was fairly easy for the jury to believe that she was guilty. She told police she would take responsibility for the crime. Her son testified against her. The jury found her guilty, and a judge sentenced her to death,

But there are problems with this case. The police got her confession by threatening her son.  He told a state psychologist he killed his father because of abuse, and repeated his confession in three letters, but the prosecutor and judge kept this information from the jury, even though any reasonable person would wonder if her “confession” was simply a mother’s effort to protect her son.

Mrs. Byrom was scheduled to be executed last Thursday.  She had no appeals left. Her legal team tried a Hail Mary pass. They filed a “petition for post-conviction relief” with the Mississippi Supreme Court. A former presiding justice of that court told CNN such petitions are almost never granted. The state attorney general pressed hard for the execution to go ahead.

But some of the justices must have harbored doubts.  The court issued a stay. Then, today, the Mississippi Supreme Court did something dramatic. It reversed Mrs. Byrom’s conviction and ordered a new trial before a different judge.

Mrs. Byrom isn’t free yet. She’s still in prison. A new jury could choose to disbelieve her son’s confession.  It’s a freebie for him, because he’s already served time for his father’s murder, and double-jeopardy now shields him from more serious charges. But if there’s nothing more to connect her to her husband’s death than her coerced confession and her son’s recanted confession, that shouldn’t be enough to keep her in prison let alone take her life.

Although I believe we should keep the death penalty on the books as a rarely-used option for exceptionally heinous crimes where guilt is not in doubt (e.g., Westley Allan Dodd and Charles Rodman Campbell), there are serious problems with the death penalty practices of some states.

First of all, a prosecutorial practice that should be universally outlawed is threatening suspects with the death penalty to get a confession or plea bargain. Almost anyone can get an innocent person to confess to a crime he didn’t commit by threatening him with death if he doesn’t accept a deal.  No guilty plea or confession obtained by such coercion should ever be accepted by any judge or court, for the obvious reason it isn’t reliable.

Nor should the death penalty ever be imposed absent independent corroboration of guilt. It’s well known that many people have confessed to crimes they didn’t commit because they craved notoriety or for other reason. Nearly every highly-publicized murder case brings these nuts out of the woodwork.  If you’re a detective working a homicide case, and six different people admit being the killer, you know for sure at least five — and probably all six — of them are lying. Competent detectives routinely investigate such claims — and most of the time, the result is to eliminate the person as a suspect.

I’m not for abolishing the death penalty, as some of my liberal friends are, but I think it must be handled with utmost care. Some states are too cavalier about it.  Mississippi is not where you’d expect a ruling like today’s, and their justices surprised us today.  What they’re really saying is, “Whoa. Slow down. Let’s be careful here.” It’s time for the high courts in Texas, Florida, and some other places to pay attention and take heed.

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