Hours before Marcellus Williams was to be put to death for the 1998 murder of a former newspaper reporter, Gov. Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution and appointed a board to look into the case.
“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment,” Greitens said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt. In light of new information, I am appointing a Board of Inquiry in this case.”
Williams’ attorneys have been pleading for a stay, arguing that Missouri was on the verge of executing the wrong person.
Williams, 48, was sentenced to death in 2001 for killing Felicia Gayle, who had been a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Gayle was stabbed 43 times with a butcher knife in her home. Williams was scheduled to be executed in 2015, but the Missouri Supreme Court stayed his lethal injection, allowing him time to obtain new DNA testing.
DNA testing of the murder weapon, conducted in 2016 and using technology that was not available at the time of the killing, shows Williams is not a match for the male DNA found on the murder weapon.
The Missouri Supreme Court last week turned down his attorneys’ attempt to have the execution stopped. The court did not provide a reason.
The ACLU of Missouri, which has argued that Williams received inadequate counsel from a public defender during his original trial, expressed relief at the governor’s call for a review of the case.
“We hope that Mr. Williams’ case will show Missouri’s elected officials where our justice system is broken and needs to be fixed,” said Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. “By starting with adequate funding for the Missouri State Public Defender.”
Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, said even the public defender assigned to Williams’ case acknowledged at the time that he was unable to perform adequately because he had been involved in another death penalty case a month earlier.
“He requested additional time to prepare for Mr. Williams’ case, and the court denied it,” Bushnell said. “He requested DNA testing at the time and asked for a continuance, and the court denied it.”
Greitens said he would appoint a five-member board that will include retired judges and have the power to subpoena evidence and compel witnesses to testify. The board will look into the case and make a recommendation to the governor as to whether Williams should be executed or have his death sentence commuted.
“We’re thankful to the governor for understanding that in order for there to be justice, evidence has to be heard and weighed and understood,” Bushnell said.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Hawley told The Washington Post this week that based on “non-DNA evidence in this case our office is confident in Marcellus Williams’ guilt and plans to move forward.”
Among the other evidence cited by Hawley’s office is testimony by Williams’ former cellmate and an ex-girlfriend implicating him in the murder. Some of the victim’s belongings were found in a car Williams drove the day she was killed.
Opponents of the death penalty say Williams’ case should help fuel the push to end the practice in Missouri.
“Marcellus Williams’ case is a classic example of the inherent injustice of the death penalty system,” said Zeke Johnson, senior director of programs at Amnesty International USA, “and why it should be altogether abolished.”
Williams was set to face lethal injection at 6 p.m. Tuesday if not for the governor’s order.