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Mississippi woman on death row for over 13 years gets new trial

Death row inmate Michelle Byrom, 57, is seen in a Mississippi Department of Corrections photo taken January 11, 2011. REUTERS/Mississippi De
Death row inmate Michelle Byrom, 57, is seen in a Mississippi Department of Corrections photo taken January 11, 2011. REUTERS/Mississippi De

By Emily Le Coz

JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - The Mississippi Supreme Court on Monday ordered a new trial for a female death row inmate, only days after she was given a last minute reprieve from execution.

Michelle Byrom, 57, would have become the first woman to be executed in the state in 70 years. She was convicted in 2000 of the fatal shooting of her husband, Edward Byrom Sr.

On Monday the state Supreme Court reversed her capital murder conviction and ordered a new trial, describing the case as "extraordinary and extremely rare," according to the court order signed by judge Josiah Dennis Coleman. There were conflicting confessions from the woman and her son.

"It's rather rare. But the claims were very strong. We're just delighted. It was a questionable case and the Mississippi Supreme Court recognized that," said Alan Freedman, one of the attorneys on Byrom's legal team with the Midwest Center for Justice based in Evanston, Illinois.

"We are grateful to the Mississippi Supreme Court in recognizing the extreme injustice in this case and taking the swift and extraordinary step of vacating Michelle Byrom's conviction so that she can have a fair opportunity to have her case heard in court," said David Voisin, a Jackson attorney advising Byrom's legal team.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood had asked the state Supreme Court to set her execution for last Thursday night, but the court denied his motion a few hours before the scheduled time.

Byrom says she suffered years of physical, sexual and emotional abuse by her husband and was hospitalized with pneumonia the day he died in what prosecutors alleged was a murder-for-hire scheme to collect insurance money.

Defense attorneys say new evidence indicates that Byrom's son was responsible for the murder.

Byrom could remain in jail until her new trial but will be taken off death row, Freeman said. The state may also chose not to retry her and release her instead.

Meanwhile she will be transferred to Tishomingo County where she was convicted, according to Mississippi Department of Corrections spokeswoman Grace Fisher.

The state District Attorney's office said on Monday it would review the court order before deciding on an appropriate action.

The state's chief investigator, Paul Howell, said it would take time to determine whether to retry Byrom, since the office would review all the older evidence and talk to all witnesses.

Execution of a woman in the United States is rare. In February, a Texas woman became the 14th female inmate put to death in the country since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, compared with about 1,400 men executed in that time.

Byrom is one of two women out of 50 inmates on death row in Mississippi, according to the state's Department of Corrections.

Prosecutors said Byrom hired her son's friend Joey Gillis to shoot her husband. They argued her son's only role was to secure the weapon and dispose of it.

Michelle Byrom confessed to the crime. But she now says she was just trying to protect her son, Edward Byrom Jr., who testified against her in exchange for a lesser charge.

The jury that found Michelle Byrom guilty never heard from a state-appointed forensic psychologist who told the judge before trial that the son had admitted to the murder, according to Voisin. The judge also withheld that evidence from Byrom's defense attorneys at the time, Voisin said.

Barred from the trial, too, were two letters the son wrote to his mother describing how he killed his father after finally snapping from years of abuse.

"I walked about two steps in the door, and screamed, and shut my eyes, (and) when I heard him move, I started firing," one letter read.

The judge did not allow the letters to be presented to jurors because defense attorneys failed to share them with the prosecution before the trial, Voisin said.

Gillis pleaded guilty to conspiracy and accessory after the fact to capital murder. Michelle Byrom's son pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit capital murder, accessory before the fact to grand larceny and accessory before the fact to burglary.

Both men are now free after serving prison time.

(Editing by David Adams; Editing by James Dalgleish, Andre Grenon and Steve Orlofsky)

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