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Could Missouri kill an innocent man? Lawyers say evidence clears Marcellus Williams

Marcellus Williams maintains his innocence. His lawyers argue that the witness testimony used to convict him was unreliable.
Courtesy of Marcellus Williams' legal team
Marcellus Williams maintains his innocence. His lawyers argue that the witness testimony used to convict him was unreliable.

Marcellus Williams’ execution was put on hold in 2017 after new DNA evidence came to light. But Missouri Gov. Mike Parson says there’s not enough evidence to postpone it further.

This month, the Missouri Supreme Court set an execution date for Marcellus Williams, a 55-year-old man convicted of the 1998 murder of former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Felicia Gayle.

But Williams has maintained his innocence, and testing from 2016 found an unknown man’s DNA on the murder weapon. The bulk of the evidence used to convict Williams was from two witnesses, neither of whom saw the crime take place, said Midwest Innocence Project executive director Tricia Rojo Bushnell.

“They offered no evidence, no information that was not already previously released in the media or in other public statements,” Bushnell told KCUR. “And, at times, their statements contradict each other as well as the physical evidence.”

After a series of appeals and other delays, Williams was scheduled to be executed in August 2017, but then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens issued a last-minute stay following the revelation of the DNA evidence. Greitens appointed a board of inquiry to investigate Williams’ case.

Current Gov. Mike Parson dissolved that board and lifted the stay of execution in June 2023. In January 2024, the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office began reviewing the case and asked the court to reconsider the evidence.

Now, Williams faces the death penalty on Sept. 24 for a crime that he and others say he didn’t commit. The Midwest Innocence Project, an organization that works to free the wrongfully convicted, is circulating a petition to stop Williams’ execution.

Bushnell spoke with KCUR about the case for Williams’ innocence and the efforts to exonerate him. The following interview excerpts have been edited for length.

On the witness testimony used to convict Williams

“This is a case where the police had no leads from the beginning and they had no information. And out of desperation, folks offered a reward. And one of those witnesses then came forward and demanded payment. In addition to that, the other witness only came forward after she was arrested by police on her own warrant.

This crime scene had a lot of forensic evidence. There were fingerprints, bloody footprints. There were hairs found at the crime scene. There was residual DNA on the murder weapon. And none of that has come back to match Mr. Williams. The DNA left on that murder weapon, which was still found protruding from the victim's body, is not Mr. Williams’. There is an unknown male profile on that murder weapon, because someone else committed this crime.”

On why Williams’ execution was delayed

“The DNA testing in this case didn't occur until 2016. The judge never had a hearing on that evidence, never determined what that evidence meant. At that point, Marcellus’ appeals were done and they moved to set an execution date. And it was at that point that our organization, the Midwest Innocence Project, along with the Innocence Project in New York, got involved and asked the governor to do what's a very extraordinary measure, very specific to Missouri: to have a stay of execution and appoint what's called a board of inquiry.

In 2017, on the day of Marcellus’ scheduled execution, then-Gov. Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution and appointed that board of inquiry.”

On the rescheduling of Williams’ execution

“Last June, Gov. Parson dissolved the board of inquiry and said, essentially, that ‘it's taken too long. It's been six years.’ Our understanding is: we don't believe that the board of inquiry ever issued a final report. And because Gov. Parson then dissolved that board and lifted the stay, the attorney general filed to get an execution date set for Mr. Williams.

In the meantime, we also filed a civil lawsuit, saying we don't believe that the governor had the ability to dissolve this board because it never finished its work. Earlier in June, the Missouri Supreme Court dismissed that civil case and also granted the attorney general's motion and set an execution date.”

On the Missouri attorney general’s approach to innocence cases

“Sadly, in Missouri, there's been a long history of the attorney general fighting every single innocence case. Currently, that includes at least four times that the prosecutor has filed a motion saying, ‘I believe this person is innocent.’

The attorney general has fought even those exonerations. It's not about fundamental fairness, what the evidence says. It's about this idea that things just need to be done, that there should be finality.”

Parson’s response

In an interview with KCUR’s Up to Date, Parson said the board of inquiry appointed to investigate Williams’ case didn’t produce any results.

“I try to be consistent with these things,” Parson said. “Whatever the facts are whenever it gets to me, is what I look at. I don’t try to try the case again.”

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