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Attorneys for Missouri death row inmate worry he could be executed before end of innocence review

 Five years after his execution date was canceled by then-Governor Eric Greitens, Marcellus Williams remains in limbo.
Illustration by Daryn Ray
Five years after his execution date was canceled by then-Governor Eric Greitens, Marcellus Williams remains in limbo.

Because Gov. Mike Parson dissolved a board of inquiry established in 2017, the Missouri Supreme Court is free to set an execution date for Marcellus Williams, even if St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell has not yet finished his review of the case. Williams has always maintained his innocence.

Attorneys for the man convicted of killing a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter in 1998 say they are worried he will not be alive for the St. Louis County prosecutor to finish reviewing his case.

Marcellus Williams was sentenced to die for fatally stabbing Felicia Gayle in her home in University City. He has always maintained his innocence. Attorneys have been trying for years to get a review of evidence that showed DNA found on the murder weapon excluded Williams as a suspect.

In 2017, just hours before Williams was scheduled to be executed, then-Gov. Eric Greitens issued a stay and appointed a board of inquiry to review that evidence. Earlier this month, St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell announced that his Conviction and Incident Review unit was also reviewing the evidence with the help of an outside firm.

“We do have concerns about this conviction,” Bell said. “The scope of our reviews has expanded to involve additional investigation that we believe is necessary to determine whether filing a motion alleging actual innocence would be appropriate.”

Gov. Mike Parson dissolved the board of inquiry in June 2023, writing in an executive order that “withdrawing the order allows the process to proceed within the judicial system, and, once the due process of law has been exhausted, everyone will receive certainty." That also dissolved the stay of execution.

Attorneys for Williams sued Parson, saying he could not legally dissolve the board before it completed its duties as required by law, including making public recommendations.

“There was no record to our knowledge, there was no recommendation issued at all,” said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project. A former member of the board, retired Judge Michael David, had previously told St. Louis Public Radio that the board had made oral recommendations to Parson but did not say what those were.

Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey intervened to stop that lawsuit from moving forward, and last month the state Supreme Court halted it temporarily. It could move to make that order permanent at any time, which would also mean it could set an execution date for Williams.

That’s why earlier this month, Bell asked the Supreme Court to wait six months so he can complete his review and decide whether to file any potential motions to vacate the conviction.

“How many times these requests have been made, I'm not aware of. What I'm looking at is what is the right thing to do in this particular matter? And we believe this is the right thing to do,” he said.

Bushnell said she is grateful that Bell’s team is reviewing the case.

“We are hopeful that means there will be a process in which this evidence will be heard,” she said. “But what's important is that Marcellus be alive for that process to finish.”

She said it is always difficult for her clients to know that their fate rests in someone else’s hands.

“In this case, we're asking the courts to let other people fulfill their processes,” Bushnell said. “And we can only hope that they are able to do that work.”

Copyright 2024 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Lippmann returned to her native St. Louis after spending two years covering state government in Lansing, Michigan. She earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and followed (though not directly) in Maria Altman's footsteps in Springfield, also earning her graduate degree in public affairs reporting. She's also done reporting stints in Detroit, Michigan and Austin, Texas. Rachel likes to fill her free time with good books, good friends, good food, and good baseball.
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