Michelle Byrom, who spent 14 years as one of two women on Mississippi’s death row, died earlier this year in Madison, Tennessee.
Byrom, who had been in and out of hospital and hospice care in recent months, died at home on Jan. 25, a family friend confirmed this week. She was 62.
A Tishomingo County jury found Byrom guilty of capital murder in 2000, and a judge sentenced her to death. Byrom then spent almost a decade and a half in the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility in Pearl. She had nearly exhausted her appeals before the state supreme court threw out her conviction in 2014 after Byrom’s legal team pointed to incompetent defense during her trial and exculpatory evidence that jurors never saw.
“She was a very strong woman to face the challenges that she did,” said Oliver Diaz, a former state supreme court justice who had called for Byrom’s conviction to be vacated. “I am happy that she was able to overcome her time on death row and live out the last few years as a free woman.”
Diaz added: “I think that the justice system took many good years away from her and she had every right to be bitter about that. She was not.”
Byrom’s case drew national attention as onlookers questioned why the state planned to execute a mentally ill woman abused by the husband she was accused of conspiring to kill. This, despite a body of evidence, including a confession by her son, that supported Byrom’s claims of innocence.
She was living in Iuka in 1999 when authorities charged her with capital murder for the death of her husband, Edward Byrom Sr., who law enforcement said had been shot in his own house with a Luger 9-millimeter pistol from World War II, a family heirloom.
Under questioning and while medicated and recovering from pneumonia at a local hospital, Michelle Byrom told the county sheriff that she would take responsibility for the murder. Her son, Edward Byrom Jr., testified at her trial that Byrom had hired his friend, Joey Gillis, as a hit man. (Both Byrom Jr., and Gillis were convicted on lesser charges related to the crime and were released from prison in 2009 and 2013, respectively.)
Before the trial, a court-appointed forensic psychologist diagnosed Michelle Byrom with depression, alcohol dependence, Munchausen’s Syndrome and borderline personality disorder. He found that she had a history of physical, sexual and emotional abuse by her husband.
The jury found Byrom guilty. Her defense attorneys waived her right to having a jury decide her sentence and presented no mitigating evidence during sentencing. The judge meted out a death sentence.
Byrom’s case wove its way through the appeals process, but the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear her case in 2014. When Attorney General Jim Hood’s office requested to set Byrom’s execution date for March 27 of that year, public scrutiny heightened. Then, the Mississippi Supreme Court denied the attorney general’s request.
On March 31 of that year, the high court threw out the conviction and granted Byrom a new trial. Byrom’s legal team presented evidence showing that jurors never saw letters written by Byrom’s son to his mother, in which Byrom Jr. confessed to shooting his father after being shoved to the ground and slapped by him, or a separate confession by Byrom Jr. to a court-appointed psychiatrist. In an affidavit, Gillis later said that Byrom did not hire him to kill her husband.
The speed at which the supreme court vacated Byrom’s conviction “was amazingly rapid,” said Ronni Mott, a journalist who had raised questions about the case just days prior at the Jackson Free Press.
“What I deduced from the court documents was that regardless of whether Michelle was guilty or not, she certainly did not get a fair trial,” Mott said of her work, which drew attention from national reporters to the case.
Even in prison, Byrom retained a sense of optimism toward her own situation and her empathy toward others. Prisoners and guards alike called her “Mama Michelle.” Though she distinguished her turn to faith from “jailhouse conversions,” Byrom later told the Clarion Ledger that God “gave me the peace I needed.”
After her conviction was overturned, Byrom was transported to the Tishomingo County jail to await a new trial. “I wanted to go for a new trial,” Byrom told Mississippi Today last year. “I was up for a new trial.”
She waited in jail for over year without a trial date before taking an Alford plea in 2015, which involved accepting the felony charge on her record but allowed her to maintain her innocence. The judge sentenced her to time served, and Byrom finally left the courthouse, free. She had spent a total of 16 years behind bars.
Following her release, Byrom moved to Tennessee, where she wrote letters, called friends and began to piece together a new life. She spent some time living with her brother before moving into a women’s transitional home outside of Nashville. She reunited with her son.
Byrom looked forward to a home of her own, a place where she could rock on the porch, care for a dog and “sit back in the rest of my life and not have to worry about anything,” she told reporters. At the time of her death, she was living with a sister.
In her three-and-a-half years of freedom, Byrom continued to deal with a number of health issues. She spent time in the hospital and in rehab following a heart attack. Even prior to her imprisonment, Byrom had a number of documented ailments, including anemia, fibromyalgia and lupus. After she got out of jail, she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, she said.
Byrom could not shake the idea that the cancer had started while she was incarcerated, she told Mississippi Today last year, but she never received treatment.
Byrom did not seek compensation for a wrongful conviction from the state, which continued to consider her guilty in the eyes of the law due to her plea bargain.
“I’ve never met anybody so resourceful,” said Kim Stonecypher, a friend of Byrom’s. “She found her own way in society and just started out really young.”
Byrom was born Michelle Elizabeth Dimitro in 1956 to Betty and Michael Dimitro in Yonkers, New York, the fourth of seven children. Her mother later divorced and remarried, and the family moved between Florida, Missouri and Alabama.
When she was 15, Byrom left home; she married Edward Byrom Sr., when she was 17. They had one child, Edward Jr.
She is survived by her siblings and son.
“Life’s a lot like poker, sometimes you just don’t have a winning hand,” said her son, Byrom Jr. “I believe she did the best she could with the hand she was dealt.”