New High Impact Project Case Seeks Relief For Sixteen Individuals On Death Row

Drinker Biddle obtained significant achievements in exposing the unfair treatment of death row prisoners while collaborating with individuals from the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project and counsel from Mississippi.

The collaboration began in the spring of 2009, as part of the firm’s pro bono litigation initiative in memory of Barbara McDowell, Washington D.C. Partner Jerry Hartman’s late wife and a well-known public interest lawyer. A complaint was filed with the Mississippi Chancery Court, asserting claims of a systemic failure to provide effective assistance of counsel by attorneys who represent death row prisoners in their post-conviction proceedings in Mississippi. (Knox v. Mississippi, Mississippi Supreme Court No. 2010-CA-00814)

While the Mississippi Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of our Complaint, important gains were nonetheless achieved through the litigation by publicly exposing years of unfair treatment of death-row prisoners.

Our complaint was the impetus behind two important Mississippi Supreme Court decisions that current and future death row prisoners will undoubtedly rely upon in bringing their individual successor post-conviction petitions challenging their convictions and sentences of death. In Stevens v. Mississippi, decided prior to Knox, the Mississippi Supreme Court provided the very remedy we were seeking in Knox, i.e., consideration of an ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel claim. The decision in the Knox case affirmatively established for the first time in a published Mississippi Supreme Court decision that a prisoner on death row can assert state ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel claims in a successor post-conviction petition even if he/she had not raised such a claim in an earlier petition.

Following the Stevens and Knox decisions, the court went a step further in the individual case of another Knox plaintiff, Blayde Grayson. This time in a published opinion, the court said “today we make clear that PCR petitioners who are under a sentence of death do have a right to the effective assistance of PCR counsel.”

On December 12, 2013, the procedure identified in Knox and the substantive law developed in Stevens/Grayson came together, resulting in a grant of relief for another Knox plaintiff, Alan Walker. In Walker v. State, the Mississippi Supreme Court held that the same office that represented all Knox plaintiffs had provided ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel to Mr. Walker. The court granted Walker’s motion to file a successive claim for post-conviction relief and ordered a hearing to examine the merits of his claims. The relief granted by the court in Walker is the precise remedy sought by the plaintiffs in Knox.

Less than four months after its decision in Walker, the Mississippi Supreme Court granted full relief to another Knox plaintiff, Michelle Byrom. The court’s order, issued March 31, 2014, granted Ms. Byrom’s motion to file a successive petition for post-conviction relief, and then overturned her conviction and death sentence. She will now receive a new trial. The unanimous court acknowledged that its decision was “extraordinary and extremely rare” but did not explain its rationale. The decision came just days after the Mississippi Attorney General had requested that the court set an execution date by March 27th for Ms. Byrom.

Instead, the court agreed to review startling new evidence of her innocence which had attracted national media attention. Ms. Byrom had been represented by the same inadequate state post-conviction office that negligently represented other Knox defendants. Had she received competent representation, this evidence might have been discovered years earlier. A copy of the Mississippi Supreme Court’s Order can be found here. Numerous stories appeared in the press reporting on this decision and they appear here.

(March 2014)