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Mississippi could execute its first female prisoner in 70 years

By Emily Le Coz

JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - A Mississippi woman convicted of murder could become the first female prisoner executed in the state in 70 years, as defense attorneys on Thursday pressed for a last-minute reprieve arguing her son has repeatedly confessed to the crime.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood had asked the state Supreme Court to execute Michelle Byrom, 57, on Thursday for the 1999 shooting of her husband, Edward Byrom Sr.

But the court has not set Byrom's execution date, giving her attorneys hope the court will take up their motion to seek permission to file additional appeals.

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 also hope the court will consider evidence indicating that Byrom's son has confessed many times to killing his father.

"It appears they are looking deeply into the issues raised," said Jackson defense attorney David Voisin, who is consulting with Byrom's legal team on her case. "We are cautiously optimistic at this point."

It is relatively rare for women to be executed in the United States. 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 to 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.

In a statement, Hood said he was following state law by seeking an execution date after a death-row inmate exhausts all state and federal remedies.

(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Stephen Powell)

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