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.
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.”
He made sure I didn’t have money. He made sure I kept away from my family, [by] hundreds of miles.
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.
When the beatdowns came, they were bad.
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.
I came out of the shower and she said, ‘Shell, you’re on the news! You’re not gonna die!'
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.
I had to speak out and say something... That’s 11 years of this woman’s life.
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.
“I can forgive these people, but I can’t forget.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233. If you would like to help Michelle with medication, clothing, or personal items, you can visit her YouCaring site, which gives her 100% of the proceeds.