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'Dead Man Walking' nun: Stop this execution

By Helen Prejean
updated 4:25 PM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
Michelle Byrom was 42 when she hired a killer to murder her husband in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, on June 4, 1999. She was sentenced on November 18, 2000. Women make up fewer than 2% of the inmates sentenced to die on death row in the United States, according to the <a href='http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/case-summaries-current-female-death-row-inmates' target='_blank'>Death Penalty Information Center</a>. Michelle Byrom was 42 when she hired a killer to murder her husband in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, on June 4, 1999. She was sentenced on November 18, 2000. Women make up fewer than 2% of the inmates sentenced to die on death row in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
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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

Editor's note: Sister Helen Prejean has long been a high-profile voice in the national dialogue on capital punishment. She campaigns against the death penalty, counsels death row prisoners and works with murder victims' family members. CNN's original series "Death Row Stories" explores America's capital punishment system. Join the conversation about the death penalty at facebook.com/cnn or Twitter @CNNorigSeries using #DeathRowStories.

(CNN) -- 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.

Sister Helen Prejean
Sister Helen Prejean

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.

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:

'Here I am going to death row'
Breakthrough? A police notebook
'The picture was innocent'

"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."

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.
Sister Helen Prejean

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.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Helen Prejean.

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