For Marcellus Williams, Who Has Been on Death Row for 24 Years, Poetry Is a Lifeline 

Some of his most meaningful pieces are the ones he writes to support and remember others facing execution.

National Poetry Month 04.30.24 By Alyxaundria Sanford

Marcellus Williams. (Image: Courtesy of Marcellus Williams’ legal team)

Marcellus Williams. (Image: Courtesy of Marcellus Williams’ legal team)

Updated on June 4, 2024:

The Missouri Supreme Court scheduled Marcellus Williams to be executed on Sept. 24, 2024 at 6 p.m. for a 1998 murder — despite DNA evidence supporting his innocence.

After the news broke, attorneys for Mr. Williams released a statement: 

“The St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney has asserted that he has clear and convincing evidence that Marcellus Williams is innocent. It is alarming that an execution date has been set in spite of this. To date, no court has ever reviewed the DNA evidence proving Mr. Williams was not the individual who wielded the murder weapon and committed this crime. Yet, the State successfully sought an execution date, highlighting the system’s emphasis on finality over innocence. That is not justice. We will continue to fight for Mr. Williams’ exoneration and seek a hearing on the prosecutor’s motion to vacate.”

Marcellus Williams doesn’t just read and write poetry for pleasure, for him it is a second language — a tool of communication. Having spent the last 24 years on death row for a crime that DNA evidence proves he didn’t commit, poetry has become his lifeline to connecting with others.

“I don’t have to write. In fact, there have been long periods of time that I didn’t write a piece at all,” he said. “But it’s a way for me to express myself and communicate to be understood.”

From stories of heartbreak and loneliness to pieces that celebrate nature and highlight climate change, Mr. Williams’ poems are deeply imbued with elements of his faith and are intended to offer comfort and support to those facing challenges in their lives.

“If I felt that a poem would aid someone in looking at a traumatic, stressful or difficult situation in a different light from another perspective that could possibly be a step upon the path of healing, then I would write a poem for that person,” he explained. 

Mr. Williams said he had never written a poem until he was about 14 years old, when he wrote to a crush.

“There was a girl that I wanted to impress, so I wrote her a poem and she liked it. I’m my biggest critic and always think I could’ve done better on a piece, but people enjoy my work and it’s something that’s followed me through my incarceration.”

He told the Innocence Project that some of his most meaningful pieces are the ones he writes to support and remember his fellow incarcerated brothers and sisters —  especially those sentenced to death. To date, there are over 2,000 people facing execution in the United States, including Mr. Williams, and, since 1973, nearly 200 people have been exonerated from death row.

One of the people Mr. Williams recently wrote a poem to was Melissa Lucio, who was just two days away from being executed in April 2022 before a court stayed her execution. Sadly, the only copy of that poem was lost in the mail. He said the message for her in that piece was one of support and to stay optimistic about her ongoing case. 

“I should’ve copied it down somewhere else. But I wanted it to be one of a kind. Something only she had,” he said.

Like Ms. Lucio, Mr. Williams was sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. In 2000, he was convicted of first-degree murder, robbery, and burglary in the 1998 killing of Felicia Gayle, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter. His conviction primarily relied upon the inconsistent testimonies of two incentivized witnesses, with no physical evidence linking him to the crime scene. While DNA evidence not available at the time of Mr. Williams’ trial proves his innocence, it has not been considered in court.

As Mr. Williams continues to fight for his innocence behind bars, it’s clear that his poetry has left a profound impact on those around him. 

“Every time Mr. Williams sends me a poem, I wish the whole world could read it. His poetry is a window into his personality — especially his thoughtfulness and generosity,” said Cecily Burge, an Innocence Project paralegal working on Mr. Williams’ case.

Touching on topics that include love, loss, and climate change, the following three poems are just a small sample of Mr. Williams’ work. The first poem, “At last…Another’s heartbeat” is about Mr. Williams’ loneliness during incarceration. The second, “Reflections of Dementia: Causes of Missing You (Grandfather),” centers on his grandfather, who passed in 2017 at 94 years old and was Mr. Williams’ first example of “what a man should be.” In the last poem, “The Net Zero/Morality Equation,” Mr. Williams said he wanted to offer what he feels is an obvious, sustainable solution to climate change: living for the greater good. 

Read more below. 

At last…Another’s heartbeat

the silhouettes of their bond visible still at the last glow of the sun

they experience each other and the life of the night as it begins to stir

standing there in silence holding hands

no rush to go back inside

there is so much beauty and comfort in being in love and just being…

– amidst sounds of buzzing



the pleasant but irregular blowing of the wind

fireflies dancing in step with the light of the moon

how strange it is to become aware of another’s heartbeat but forget one’s own –

finally love.

Reflections of Dementia: Causes of Missing You (Grandfather)

i remember you asking “when was i gonna come and visit?”

such was the moment of realization and it hurt so much to hear it

i imagined you warring with dementia desperately trying to cling to your family-

but hearing your voice had me wondering if i was still a memory?

i can picture you in a photo with the signature Hill head and ears

smiling into the lens with eyes that i believed knew no fear

since you have been gone things have been said – terrible things-

never did i know about the abuse your anger did often bring

so, so many thoughts and emotions are flowing through me right now

never could i imagine hurting those i love still i see no benefit in spending energy on the how

i can only remember you as my first example of a strong man,

an adequate provider,


and one who was respected without even trying-

lived into your nineties still getting respect without a memory intact and dying

growing up i have no memories of being hugged or told i was loved

…I love you grandfather but the cycle must be broken with the guidance from above

families in which we are born are a sign of wisdom and what has been decreed

so rights must be fulfilled and limits we must not exceed

i remember you stressing our left handedness as a special connection

even now i can still feel the pride i felt then from this reflection

after knowing so much you revert to knowing nothing

i can’t imagine experiencing a state where it is so difficult to be able to recall something

-or afflicted with a condition where neural pathways have been completely shut off

this is one state in which it means to be lost…

grandfather i haven’t forgotten you and know that i miss you my left handed comrade-

(smile) but may Allaah bless me to always remember you as simply:


The Net Zero/Morality Equation

indeed corruption does appear upon the land and sea

– as a direct result of what hands have done clearly

now a question is asked and put quite simply:

is it possible to return to a state of emission free?

behold the carbon footprint and its manifest distorted body

plaguing and distracting minds with self-inflicted anxiety

with a cognizant-dissonant actuality

along with consumer insatiability

as the thirst for materialism borders on a global norm of insanity

proceeding by far from developed countries

where bureaucracy hinders


or even ignores necessary policy

– that addresses with substance better life quality

countering with comprehensive plans to conquer greenhouse gas

and fragile ecosystems

like carbon removal and low carbon technology

innovative and sustainable solar energy

capable of running power grids to produce conscientious electricity

embraced by a forward thinking industry

– those who partner with scholars


and activists to bring about enhanced efficiency

who will remind the leaders of geopolitics

and geo-economic blocs –

that a 2050 net zero will be an impossibility

or unobtainable reality 

absent a serious commitment to uplift and assist the underdeveloped

nations people’s lives and productivity

and without the essential factor of a high standard of morality

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