JACKSON, Miss. — Four days after Mississippi sought to execute Michelle Byrom, the state Supreme Court tossed her capital murder conviction and ordered a new trial.
"I'm just overjoyed the court ruled so quickly after not setting the execution date to remedy a great injustice," said attorney David Voisin, a consultant for the defense team.
Defense lawyers were in the process of sharing the news with Byrom, 57, who has been on death row for 14 years.
"We are pleased that Ms. Byrom will now have the opportunity to present the overwhelming evidence that she is innocent of murder-for-hire," the defense said in a statement.
Paul Howell, chief investigator for the Tishomingo County, Miss., district attorney's office that handled the prosecution, said they plan to read over the order and take the appropriate action. "We respect the court's decision," he said. "We'll do whatever they ask us to do."
Monday's decision to reverse the case came after The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger and others drew attention to the fact that Byrom's son, Edward Byrom Jr., had repeatedly confessed to killing his father, Edward Byrom Sr., but jurors had never heard that evidence.
In Monday's two-page decision in the Byrom case, Justice Josiah Coleman called the ruling to reverse her conviction "extraordinary and extremely rare in the context of a petition for leave."
Former Justice Oliver Diaz Jr., who supported a new trial for her when he was on the bench, echoed the unusualness of the order, which came after Byrom had exhausted all her appeals. "It's breathtaking," he said. "It's amazing."
At Byrom's 2000 capital murder trial, jurors never heard any of Edward Byrom Jr.'s confessions. Instead, they heard him testify she hired "hit man" Joey Gillis for $10,000 to $15,000 to kill Edward Byrom Sr.
The jury convicted Byrom of capital murder for this alleged murder-for-hire scheme.
Convinced the case would be reversed, her defense lawyers at the time put up no mitigating evidence, which included "a lifetime of physical, sexual and emotional abuse," wrote defense attorney David Calder.
Her stepfather abused her and, by age 15, she was working as a stripper, Voisin said. Edward Byrom Sr., who had a special darkened room to watch pornography, reportedly forced her to have sex with other men, which he videotaped.
Without any mitigating evidence, Circuit Judge Thomas Gardner sentenced Byrom to death.
In Monday's order reversing the conviction, the high court ordered the case assigned to a judge other than Gardner.
In 2006, state Supreme Court Justice Jess Dickinson called for Byrom's conviction to be tossed out, writing, "I have attempted to conjure up in my imagination a more egregious case of ineffective assistance of counsel during the sentencing phase of a capital case. I cannot."
Dickinson and two other justices concluded Byrom deserved a new trial because Edward Byrom Jr.'s letters admitting he killed his father were wrongly barred, but five justices upheld her conviction.
In an interview with The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger, former prosecutor Arch Bullard said he still believed Byrom was "the instigator" who "came up with the idea to have him killed."
But letters from her son told a different story, describing how after his father slapped him, he grabbed a 9 mm pistol and went in the room where his father was sleeping.
When he heard his father move, "I started firing," he wrote.
Edward Byrom Jr. also reportedly confessed to a psychologist that he had killed his father — more evidence jurors never heard.
Months after Byrom's conviction, Gillis' attorney learned about the statement to the psychologist and challenged the accusations against his client. Gillis wound up pleading to accessory after the fact.
In 2009, Gillis walked out of prison, and he has since given the defense a sworn statement, saying he did not shoot Edward Byrom Sr.
Contacted by The Clarion-Ledger, Edward Byrom Jr. denied killing his father.
But he wrote another letter to his mother, this one after the trial: "Do you remember the last question your attorney asked me? If I did it? Yes, I did, and Joey helped (in a way), but in so doing I released a chaotic chain of events that are still unraveling."
Sentenced to death, Byrom had exhausted all of her state and federal appeals when her lawyers sought relief to block the state from executing her. Byrom is one of two women on death row in Mississippi.
Monday's decision illustrates "there's a need to keep fighting for your client and not give up," said Alan Freedman of the Midwest Center for Justice, who helped represent Byrom on appeal. "It's never too late."
Contributing: Therese Apel, The (Jackson, Miss.) Clarion-Ledger