High Impact Project Case Update: Lawsuit Representing Sixteen Individuals On Death Row Achieves Significant Results

In 2011, in the case, Knox v. Mississippi, the Foundation through lawyers at Drinker Biddle, in conjunction with the American Bar Association Death Penalty Project and Mississippi civil rights organizations and law firms represented sixteen individuals on death row, who did not receive adequate post-conviction collateral review hearings. Significant results were achieved for some of those sixteen individuals as follows:

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. 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. Following the court’s decision, Ms. Byrom agreed to plead no contest in exchange for her release. The court sentenced Ms. Byrom to time served, and she was released on June 26, 2015, after spending 16 years in prison, 14 of those on death row. Numerous stories appeared in the press reporting on this case and they appear here. Additional news story about her release available here.

Of the original 16 plaintiffs in the litigation, further litigation occurred with respect to eight of them in addition to Michelle Byron. The other seven original plaintiffs were executed. Richard Jordan, after denial of his appeal to the United States Supreme Court with three Justices dissenting, is awaiting a determination of his clemency petition. Willie Manning was granted post-conviction relief vacating his conviction and sentence and granted a new trial. This relief was based upon his initial post-conviction petition. Steve Knox had his proceedings stayed indefinitely by the Mississippi Supreme Court to allow consideration of his motions for funding and discovery. Alan Walker was granted leave by the Mississippi Supreme Court to file a successor post-conviction petition based on post-conviction inadequate assistance of counsel. The case was remanded on that issue.

Blayde Grayson achieved a significant victory when the Mississippi Supreme Court issued an opinion holding a constitutional right to effective assistance of counsel in state post-conviction proceedings. The Mississippi Supreme Court held that he had inadequate counsel but it was not prejudicial. His motion for access to experts was granted. Jeffrey Harvard’s motion for leave to file a successor post-conviction petition was denied by the Mississippi Supreme Court but it apparently did not raise the issue of post-conviction ineffective assistance of counsel. Stephen Powers was granted the right to file a federal habeas petition prior to the conclusion of the Knox litigation. Thong Le had his post-conviction relief denied by the Mississippi Supreme Court but is likely proceeding with federal habeas proceedings. (August 2015)