'Dead Man Walking' nun: Stop this execution

Story highlights

  • Sister Helen Prejean, portrayed in "Dead Man Walking," wants court to review death row case
  • Mississippi court denies request to set Michelle Byrom's execution for Thursday
  • She's on death row for allegedly plotting to murder her husband, but her son has confessed
  • Byrom has "suffered a lifetime of abuse" and "struggles with mental illness," writes Prejean

If the attorney general of Mississippi had had his way, Michelle Byrom would have been executed Thursday for allegedly hiring someone to kill her husband, Edward Byrom Sr.

Michelle Byrom, who has suffered a lifetime of abuse -- first at the hands of her stepfather and later at the hands of her husband -- also struggles with mental illness.

On the night of June 4, 1999, when her husband was killed, Byrom was in the hospital. At her trial, jurors bought the prosecution's version of the crime and found her guilty of murder for hire. Defense attorneys did not call the alleged killer to testify on her behalf, nor did the defense present the son's multiple confessions. Judge Thomas Gardner imposed a death sentence.

Now, evidence is coming to light revealing that it was the son, Edward Byrom, Jr. -- aka Junior -- who killed his father and that Gardner knew of the son's confession before the trial, but on a technicality, the jury wasn't permitted to see his jailhouse confession letters.

Sister Helen Prejean

No wonder, with such exculpatory information withheld, Michelle Byrom was found guilty and received a death sentence.

As is often the case in these harrowing tales of justice, only now, 14 years after the trial, have dedicated post-conviction lawyers' investigations shed light on the son's confessions. In letters to his mother, Junior wrote in stark detail how he killed his father and why.

He also confessed to forensic psychologist Criss Lott in the course of a pretrial interview. Those confessions are corroborated by the fact that it was Junior who led police to the murder weapon and that it was his hands that tested positive for traces of gunpowder.

In one of his admissions to his mother, Junior wrote:

"I sit in my room, for a good 1 ½ - 2 hours and dad comes in my room and goes off on me, calling me bastard, nogood, mistake, and telling me I'm inconciderate (sic) and just care about my self, and slaps me, then goes back to his room. As I sat on my bed, tears of rage flowing, remembering my childhood, my anger kept building and building, and I went to my car, got the 9mm, and walked to his room, peeked in, and he was asleep. I walked about two steps in the door, and screamed, and shut my eyes, when I heard him move, I started firing. When I opened my eyes again, I freaked! I grabbed what casings I saw, and threw them into the bushes, grabbed the gun, and went to town."

'Here I am going to death row'
'Here I am going to death row'

    JUST WATCHED

    'Here I am going to death row'

MUST WATCH

'Here I am going to death row' 01:02
Breakthrough? A police notebook
Breakthrough? A police notebook

    JUST WATCHED

    Breakthrough? A police notebook

MUST WATCH

Breakthrough? A police notebook 00:51
'The picture was innocent'
'The picture was innocent'

    JUST WATCHED

    'The picture was innocent'

MUST WATCH

'The picture was innocent' 01:22

Junior's letters were barred at the trial. Gardner precluded the jury from hearing them as a sanction against Byrom's lawyers, who failed to share them with the prosecution in a timely manner. What the jury did hear was the prosecutor's scenario that Junior was part of a murder-for-hire conspiracy, with his mother as mastermind and his friend Joey Gillis as the shooter. In a deal with prosecutors for a reduced sentence, Junior testified against his mother.

What Junior said to a sheriff when he was interrogated cannot be verified. County authorities say the recording was lost. But in a letter, Junior said:

"I gave them (the sheriffs) one bulls**t story after another, trying to save my own ass. ... I was so scared, confused, and high, I just started spitting the first thought out, which turned into this big conspiracy thing, for money, which was all BS, that's why I had so many different stories."

As evidence now shows, Gardner also knew of Junior's confession of guilt to psychologist Lott even before the trial. Driven by conscience, Lott had told the judge what Junior had voluntarily revealed to him, but the judge did not disclose this to the jury and went so far as to instruct Lott not to share the information with the defense. When the defense took the unusual step of asking the judge, instead of the jury, to pass sentence, Judge Gardner chose death.

This week the Mississippi Supreme Court denied the state attorney general's motion to set Thursday as an execution date for Ms. Byrom.

The big question now is whether the Mississippi Supreme Court will grant Byrom's request for a hearing to consider the newly revealed evidence, including Lott's affidavit stating that he told the trial judge about Junior's confession.

I'm holding my breath.

I know all too well what happens in such successor petitions in some higher courts.

In my book "The Death of Innocents," I tell of two men in Virginia and Louisiana denied hearings on new evidence of innocence because the higher court held their petitions to be "procedurally barred" or because Southern supreme courts, almost as a matter of course, uphold prosecutors' positions on death cases.

Those two men were executed, and I accompanied them to their deaths.

I hope and pray that Byrom, a victim of both physical and constitutional abuses, fares better.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

      Death Row Stories

    • There are 61 women on death row across the country, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, making up only 2% of the 3,125 inmates on death row across the country.  Take a look at all the women sentenced to death in the United States.  Source: Death Penalty Information Center

      Lethal injection explained

      As manufacturers cut off supplies of lethal injection drugs, states look for new drug combinations for executions.
    • 371489 07: The Texas death chamber in Huntsville, TX, June 23, 2000 where Texas death row inmate Gary Graham was put to death by lethal injection on June 22, 2000. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers)

      Surprising death penalty facts

      An infographic illustrates America's record on executions by race, state, year and method since the death penalty was reinstated more than 30 years ago.
    • orig jag death penalty stats_00002728.jpg

      Executions by the numbers

      More than 14,000 people have been executed under U.S. law. About 3,000 more are slated for execution on death rows across the nation.
    • new dnt botched execution brown_00000904.jpg

      Lethal injection questions

      Clayton Lockett's botched lethal injection and deadly heart attack raises disturbing questions about how the U.S. executes death row prisoners.
    • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 3_00004910.jpg

      Life after death row

      After John Thompson survived 14 years on death row he had to figure out how to return to the world.
    • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 2_00001417.jpg

      Final death warrant

      Death row inmate John Thompson describes his reaction after Louisiana set his official execution date.
    • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 1_00002307.jpg

      'What you're up against'

      A first-time meeting between death row inmate John Thompson and his appellate lawyers yields mutual skepticism.
    • orig death row stories ep 5 clip 3_00005522.jpg

      'I'm like, "Hell no!"'

      Death row inmate John Thompson confronts a proposed shift in legal strategy aimed at saving his life.
    • He coaxes murderers to confess

      Longtime Miami-area homicide detective Marshall Frank has met some really bad people. He reveals three steps to coax killers to confess their crimes.
    • The police notebook

      Why wasn't a key piece of evidence shown to jurors? Can a simple notebook prove a man's innocence?
    • orig death row stories ep 4 clip 1 picture was innocent_00004427.jpg

      'The picture was innocent'

      A retired homicide detective examines the strange case of an ex-cop sentenced to death row for the murder of an 11-year-old girl.
    • 'I didn't do this'

      Joe D'Ambrosio, like many inmates, claimed he was innocent. As he learned, claiming it is one thing. Proving it is another.
    • orig death row stories ep3 p2_00003605.jpg

      'It was a circus'

      Although his conviction was overturned, prosecutors tried to keep an ex-death row inmate locked up before his new trial.
    • 'I always get caught'

      When police questioned an unwitting Gloria Killian after a brutal murder, she used a poor choice of words.
    • 'Nobody cared'

      Well into her 32-years-to-life murder sentence, Gloria Killian met a friend on the outside who was willing to listen.
    • Breakthrough: The letter

      Prison lifer Gloria Killian's defense team finds a previously unknown letter that may help win her freedom.
    • Edward Lee Elmore, 53, smiles after his hearing on Friday, March 2, 2012 in Greenwood, S.C. Elmore, who spent 30 years in prison for murdering Dorothy Edwards, a crime that Elmore said he did not commit, was set free by Judge Frank Addy on Friday. (AP Photo/The Index-Journal, Matt Walsh)

      The fight of their lives

      Legal intern Diana Holt refused to believe that death row inmate Edward Lee Elmore was a killer. So began the fight of their lives.
    • orig death row stories 3_00003213.jpg

      'Are they gonna kill me?'

      Three weeks before his execution date, Edward Lee Elmore asked his attorney a heartbreaking question. Watch her tearful response.
    • orig death row stories 1 _00004604.jpg

      Suspicious student triggers probe

      A law student was sent to meet a death row inmate accused of a horrible murder. Their meeting triggered the beginning of an amazing story.
    • Somalia convicted murderer Adan Sheikh Abdi is tied to a post before being executed on August 17, 2013 by a firing squad in a Mogadishu square for the September 2012 killing of well-known journalist Hassan Yusuf Absuge. Adan Sheikh Abdi was tried by a military tribunal as a 'combatant' for belonging to Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab insurgency. He was sentenced to death in March and his subsequent appeal was rejected. AFP PHOTO / Mohamed Abdiwahab (Photo credit should read Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images)

      Report: Executions rise in 2013

      Virtual "killing sprees" in Iran and Iraq led to a spike in the number of executions globally last year, according to Amnesty International.
    • Death row diary

      Death row inmates deal with demons in different ways. William Van Poyck chose to write.