Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens did the right thing Tuesday when he stayed the execution of Marcellus Williams and appointed a board of inquiry to review Williams’ request for clemency.
It was a remarkable and merciful decision. The governor acted wisely, and we applaud him for it.
Williams, 48, was set to die later Tuesday. He was convicted of killing Lisha Gayle, a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, in 1998. She died during a robbery at her home.
Williams has long maintained his innocence. There was no physical evidence connecting him with the crime. And his conviction depended in part on the testimony of two felons: a former girlfriend and a cellmate.
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His attorneys say new testing has revealed DNA on the murder weapon that is not connected to their client.
That raised new questions about the real possibility that Williams is not guilty of the crime for which he was scheduled to die.
“It certainly would give most reasonable people pause to say, ‘Should you be executing somebody when you’ve got reasonable evidence suggesting another man did it?’ ” attorney Kent Gipson said Tuesday.
Other groups, including the Midwest Innocence Project, weighed in on Williams’ behalf.
The Missouri Supreme Court denied a petition to stop the execution. That left the governor’s office as one of the last places Williams could seek a stay.
“To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt,” he said in a statement. “In light of new information, I am appointing a board of inquiry in this case.”
The five-member board will include retired judges, Greitens’ office said, and it will have subpoena power.
When its work is done, the board will make a recommendation to the governor, who will decide if the death sentence should be commuted or carried out.
Reasonable Missourians can disagree about the morality and practicality of capital punishment. Evidence suggests the death penalty is not the deterrent some think — Missouri’s murder rate is higher than Iowa’s, which has no death penalty.
At the same time, many Missourians believe the ultimate punishment provides justice for victims, and for society.
But surely no one believes a man or woman should be put to death in Missouri if there are lingering, unanswered questions about the guilt or innocence of the condemned. This is just such a case.
Greitens recognized that fact and showed great courage in making his announcement. All Missourians should laud his decision.