Missouri Governor Halts Execution With New DNA Evidence Indicating Innocence
Marcellus Williams was hours away from being executed by the state of Missouri on Tuesday, August 22nd. Missouri Governor, Eric Greitens halted Williams’ 6 p.m. execution in the early afternoon amidst thousands of calls and signatures demanding that Williams not be executed in light of new DNA evidence indicating his innocence. Many also gathered to protest Williams’ upcoming execution.
Greitens has assigned a Board of Inquiry that will be comprised of 5 former Missouri judges to investigate the circumstances surrounding Williams’ case. The Board will report to Greitens with its findings.
Williams was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of St. Louis Post Dispatch reporter Felicia Gayle in 2001. The case against Williams was built on the testimonies of Williams’ girlfriend, Laura Asaro and Williams’ jail cellmate, Henry Cole. The credibility of these two witnesses has been widely questioned. Williams’ lawyers have admitted they did not fully vet these two witnesses. The prosecutors have been accused of intentionally withholding information about Asaro and Cole’s pasts that would have likely tarnished their credibility in the courtroom.
To this day, there is no forensic evidence that links Williams to the crime scene. Williams’ lawyers claim that previous DNA testing of fingernails, hair, and footprints did not belong to Williams.
Williams’ execution was initially scheduled on January 28th, 2015. Days before Williams’ scheduled execution date, additional DNA testing was requested. A federal judge denied this request and described it as “frivolous.” The Missouri Supreme court eventually granted a stay of Williams’s execution, allowing Williams’ lawyers to gather new DNA evidence.
As Williams’ new execution date quickly approached, his lawyers requested another stay on August 15th, 2017, armed with new DNA evidence that excluded Williams as a possible forensic match on the murder weapon. Within a matter of hours, the Missouri Supreme Court quickly denied the lawyer’s petition for the death penalty to be taken off the table or that the case be reheard. A week after the court’s decision, Greitens issued his stay of the execution.
The new forensic evidence that led to the most recent stay comes from multiple reputable sources. Norah Rudin (Ph.D.) of Forensic DNA Consulting reviewed two DNA reports of the murder weapon that were previously deemed inconclusive. Rudin came to this conclusion: “Based on the data from the detected profiles, the simplest and most reasonable explanation for the profile detected on the knife is that Marcellus Williams is not a contributor.”
Greg Hampikian (Ph.D.) of Boise State University also reviewed the two DNA reports that were previously deemed inconclusive. He came to the same conclusion as Norah Rudin. Hampikian’s conclusion states: “Marcellus Williams is excluded as a possible contributor of the DNA profiles obtained from the knife handle swabs.” Hampikian has also been quoted as saying that his examination, “isn’t enough to incriminate someone, but it is enough to exclude somebody.”
Even with credible DNA evidence showing that Williams is not a possible DNA contributor to the murder weapon, a spokesperson for Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley stated, “Based on the other, non-DNA, evidence in this case, our office is confident in Marcellus Williams’ guilt.”
Question of Race
The racial makeup of the jury in State of Missouri v. Marcellus Williams has also been widely scrutinized. The St. Louis County jury that found Williams guilty was comprised of 11 white jurors and 1 black juror. The prosecution purged 6 out 7 black jurors. Alleged unfair racial bias in St. Louis County’s jury selection has been an ongoing subject of debate for a number of years.
Robert McCulloch said there is “zero possibility” Williams is innocent. McCulloch is the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney who oversaw Williams’ initial conviction. McCulloch is the same man who supervised the grand jury that did not indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
McCulloch’s career has been engulfed in controversy due to his close police ties and questionable choices in prosecution. McCulloch has been accused of showing bias towards police in cases such as the lethal 2000 shooting of two black men at a Jack in the Box and the 2001 police shooting of Annette Green in her home. McCulloch’s confidence in Williams’ guilt is once again causing many to raise questions about the prosecuting attorney’s objectivity.
Eric Greitens did the right thing today. In choosing to note the significance of credible DNA evidence over questionable testimony, Greitens very well may have saved an innocent man’s life. Some credit needs to be given to the Governor for making the moral decision, but the bulk of the recognition should go to those who signed petitions, called, and protested Williams’ execution. Without the strong voice of the American public making its way to the Governor’s ear, Marcellus Williams may very well be dead.
The case of Marcellus Williams should give us all pause. When the state of Missouri is hours away from killing a man who could be innocent, we must take a moment to question the course of action taken by those in power.
Why did the Missouri Supreme Court disregard new DNA evidence that indicated Marcellus Williams’ innocence almost immediately? How can a Board of Inquiry still potentially chose to execute Marcellus Williams without any DNA evidence that ties him to the crime scene? With the new DNA evidence we have, can we truthfully come to the conclusion, without the slightest shred of doubt, that Marcellus Williams killed Felicia Gayle?
The St. Louis Post Dispatch, who proudly employed Felicia Gayle before she devoted her professional career to charity, has this to say about the death penalty: “The Post-Dispatch opposes capital punishment under any and all circumstances, believing its administration is always arbitrary and always irrevocable. It has no deterrent value. If the state must execute, there must be no room for doubt.”
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