Imagine you had evidence that proved you did not commit a murder, but a court would not let you present it. That is exactly what is happening to Marcellus Williams. No physical evidence connects Williams to the 1998 murder of Felicia “Lisha” Gayle. Footprints and hairs found at the St. Louis area crime scene were not his. And now DNA testing, which the defense has requested for more than a decade, conclusively excludes him as the source of the DNA found on the murder weapon. But Williams was never allowed to present that DNA evidence in court. Instead, the state of Missouri intends to execute him on Tuesday at 6 p.m.
Williams has always maintained his innocence but has been consistently denied the opportunity to prove it. At trial, his attorney requested time to have the knife tested for DNA, but the court unreasonably denied it. He also sought analysis of bloody fingerprints found at the crime scene, only to learn that law enforcement lost them — purportedly without ever having tested them.
As a result, Williams’ conviction rested on the testimony of two informants, who came forward only after learning of a $10,000 reward and who admitted to meeting to discuss their testimony. One informant later admitted that she “set up” Williams in exchange for the money. The other, a jailhouse snitch, was one of many inmates approached by law enforcement with details of the case. Such incentivized testimony is a known cause of wrongful convictions. In fact, 15 percent of DNA exonerations involve a jailhouse informant, and 57 percent of both DNA and non-DNA exonerations involve the use of perjured testimony. Williams’ case includes both of these, yet despite these concerns, he is scheduled to be executed without a court hearing the evidence of his innocence.
The Innocence Project and the Midwest Innocence Project have asked Gov. Eric Greitens to stay the execution of Williams and appoint a board of inquiry to review the evidence and make an informed determination of his guilt. In Missouri, 41 people have been exonerated, and four of those exonerees had been sentenced to death. It is likely, based on the evidence, that Williams could join those ranks. If executed, however, he will never have that chance.
Tragically, this is not the first time Williams has been scheduled to die, despite very real and unresolved questions about his guilt. In 2015, the Supreme Court of Missouri issued a last-minute stay of execution to allow Williams to obtain DNA testing. But when the results came back exculpatory — proving it was someone else and not Williams’ DNA on the knife — the court denied him a chance to present that evidence and summarily denied the case without issuing any written opinion to explain it. Instead of providing justice, the court gave Williams an execution date.
A court that deems scientific testing important enough to order should hear the results of that testing. Refusing to do so is not only contradictory, it also undermines confidence in the judicial system’s ability to uphold justice. It is incomprehensible that courts and prosecutors who routinely prosecute defendants on the basis of DNA found on a murder weapon now intend to execute Williams without letting him present that very same type of DNA evidence simply because it could exonerate him.
It is not too late to press pause on the irreversible, but Williams is running out of time. Greitens must halt the execution and appoint a board to give Williams the due process he and all the citizens of Missouri deserve. The courts may be willing to turn their back on justice and DNA evidence in order to allow an innocent man to die. The governor should not.
Tricia Bushnell is the executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project in Kansas City.