Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Read Ronni Mott's March 19, 2014, story in the JFP that brought international attention to the tragic case of Michelle Byrom.
You can't make it up. A husband horribly abuses his mentally ill wife and his son for years, even forcing her to have sex with others to videotape.
Someone then kills the abuser. A nightmare of legal maneuvering then follows with her accused of paying another man to kill her husband, even as her son confesses to the murder several times, as does she once while under the influence of mind-altering drugs. The judge doesn't allow the jury to see evidence that might have helped her.
Meantime, neither the son nor the supposed hit man goes to prison for murder, and a newspaper quotes the prosecutor saying the alleged contract killer didn't actually do it.
The woman ends up on death row because, as often happens to poor people, her crappy attorneys can't figure out how to keep her from being executed.
Nowhere along the way does this mess of a prosecution and sentencing capture much of anyone's attention outside a handful of anti-death penalty folks. The Democratic attorney general of the state, Jim Hood, asks for a date for her execution, and there is no evidence that either he or the current GOP governor, Phil Bryant, gives a damn about whether she actually is innocent or not.
Because they're all tough-no-matter-whether-or-not-it-was-a-crime politicians.
Michelle Byrom is a textbook case of what is wrong with the state executions in Mississippi and the rest of the nation.
Even if you believe that the government should choose who to execute and that it's moral to take one life for another—which I don't—I'm guessing that most of you think taxpayers should only fund the killing of murderers who we're dang sure are guilty.
When someone is convicted for hiring someone the prosecutor said didn't kill anyone ... well, Mississippi, we have a problem.
The nightmare that is the death penalty in Mississippi is beyond a morality question. The citizens of this state have no guarantee that we are actually executing the people who did the crime. Our criminal-justice system has long been riddled with corruption (Quick: How many of you have paid to keep your kid out of jail at some point over the decades? Be honest with yourself at least), ineptness, and a lust for power that leads prosecutors and judges to do really bad things.
Start here in Hinds County. My friend Cedric Willis spent 12 years in Parchman for a double murder and rape because then-District Attorney Ed Peters' office didn't present the evidence that could have cleared him. The prosecutor on the case, Bobby DeLaughter, later became a judge and presided over many criminal cases. He, more recently, went to prison due to a bribery scheme involving former employer Peters.
I sure wish I had time to scrutinize every case those guys ever touched. I'm not saying I would find other problems, but how do these men's records lead to trust in our court decisions that, in turn, bolster our confidence about who is in prison and on death row and who is walking free?
The point is: There is no possible way Mississippians can be certain that all people on death row are guilty. Our system is too broken, and as the Byrom case shows, there is little, if any, Mississippi officialdom lining up to make sure that the state government doesn't kill or imprison innocent people.
It is easy to look at convicted murderers with bloodlust and a desire for revenge. I get it, and I've felt it myself.
But don't fool yourselves into thinking that the death penalty actually deters murders. For one thing, it's perhaps the most discriminatory institution this country embraces: It is biased against the poor and uneducated who do not have the connections or resources to keep themselves off death row.
Not to mention, I rather doubt someone suffering the kinds of abuse that Michelle's husband meted out would actually stop to think about whether or not they might be executed at some point before killing their abuser. The death penalty doesn't deter murders by the people likely to be executed.
The embrace of the death penalty by many in the United States is unusual on the world stage and especially among "civilized" nations that consider the practice barbarous and backward. We can talk all we want about human-rights violations in places like China and Iran, but that is the company we keep by allowing government executions in the U.S. In fact, the countries that execute the most people are, in this order: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, United States, Pakistan, Yemen, North Korea, Vietnam and Libya.
The truth isn't that non-death-penalty nations are trying to be "softer" on crime. The research shows myriad problems with executions—from the "cruel and unusual" nature of the ways we kill the convicted to the costs and uselessness when it comes to actually preventing other murders.
Put another way, "civilized" rejection of executions means that other countries just might be facing the truth quicker than some in the United States are willing to.
Too much of that truth involves unethical judges and prosecutors who often run for office based on their toughness and, thus, are sometimes willing to hide evidence that might clear someone or, at least, keep them alive and in prison.
Consider some other tough truths: In Mississippi and beyond, most condemned murderers of any race killed a white person. A disproportionate number are black murderers—and usually for killing whites.
Since 1973, more than 138 people on death row have been exonerated in the U.S., including at least three in Mississippi. That means prosecutors, judges and juries are condemning innocent people. The scary part is that their case may or may not be reopened, and often only are because a zealous journalist (like Ronni Mott) did a story that went viral. We can only pray that saves Ms. Byrom.
But what about all the others on death row in Mississippi and beyond? There aren't enough journalists to investigate every case, and often the evidence is missing or buried too deep to find. Attorneys doing the Lord's work such as those with the Innocence Project (who helped free Cedric Willis) can't get to everyone, either, although they try.
And our leaders aren't exactly helping. Beyond turning their heads away from bad prosecution, the state's leaders aren't calling for enough scrutiny. The attorney general has defended the controversial work of medical examiner Steven Hayne, for instance, and the Legislature is actually giving judges more latitude and sentencing discretion, instead of being more concerned about what judges and prosecutors are up to—or hiding.
Meantime, the public simply cannot trust our criminal-justice system to get it right. That has been proved over and over again. As a result, the state of Mississippi must declare a moratorium on the death penalty. It is the only moral thing to do.
See jfp.ms/byrom to read more about the Michelle Byrom case and jfp.ms/cedric for Cedric Willis' story. Read about Haynes' work at jfp.ms/Edmonds.