Marcellus Williams, Facing Execution Despite DNA Evidence of His Innocence, Sues Missouri Governor and Attorney General for Dissolving Board of Inquiry Examining the Case and Moving to Set an Execution Date
Gov. Mike Parson violated the law when he dissolved board without a report.
Press Release 08.24.23 By Innocence Staff
(August 24 – Jefferson City, MO) Marcellus Williams, who faces execution in Missouri despite DNA evidence proving his innocence, has filed a civil lawsuit against Gov. Mike Parson for dissolving the board of inquiry that had been investigating his innocence claim before it could produce a report and recommendation, and against Attorney General Andrew Bailey for moving to set an execution date after the governor had illegally dissolved the board. The suit, filed in Missouri’s 19th Circuit Court, asks the court to invalidate Gov. Parson’s June 30 executive order dissolving the board and lifting Mr. Williams’ stay of execution, arguing that the governor violated Mr. Williams’ rights and the law when he dissolved the board without a report and recommendation.
In an unprecedented move earlier this summer, Gov. Parson rescinded an executive order issued by his predecessor, effectively lifting Mr. Williams’ stay of execution and terminating a board of five former judges appointed by previous Gov. Eric Greitens to examine the new DNA evidence — which no court has ever reviewed. Gov. Greitens issued the executive order pursuant to Missouri Revised Statutes section 552.070, a law passed in 1963 designed to protect innocent people from being wrongfully executed. The statute permits the governor to empanel a board of inquiry to review evidence of innocence in a death penalty case, an action taken only three times by Missouri governors since its passage. Gov. Greitens’ 2017 executive order required the board to provide him with a report and recommendation about Mr. Williams’ claims of innocence and application for clemency. The lawsuit alleges that Gov. Parsons never received such a report or recommendation from the board before he dissolved it.
“The dissolution of the board of inquiry before a report or recommendation could be issued means that, to date, no judge has ruled on the full evidence of Mr. William’s innocence,” said Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, which represents Mr. Williams. “Knowing that, the state of Missouri still seeks to execute him. That is not justice.”
“The board of inquiry statute was created so that an independent group of retired judges had an opportunity to review all the evidence in a death penalty case, without any procedural or political obstructions, to make sure an innocent man or woman is not executed. It’s a unique, fail-safe protection. By aborting the process before this distinguished group of jurists issued a report, Gov. Parson violated Mr. Williams’ due process rights under the state and federal constitutions to life and liberty,” said Barry C. Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project.
Mr. Williams has spent 24 years of his life on death row for the 1998 murder of Felicia Gayle, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who was stabbed 43 times in her home. Although no physical evidence or crime scene evidence connected him to the crime, his conviction primarily relied upon the testimonies of two incentivized witnesses, whose statements were inconsistent with the crime scene evidence, with their own prior statements, and with each other.
In 2016, post-conviction DNA testing conducted on the handle of the knife lodged in Ms. Gayle’s neck detected the presence of male DNA and definitively excluded Mr. Williams as the source. That evidence has been reviewed and analyzed by three renowned DNA experts, all of whom concluded that Mr. Williams is not the source of the DNA. Furthermore, Mr. Williams was excluded as the source of the hairs found near Ms. Gayle’s body and as the source of bloody footprints found inside the house near the body.
Based on this new DNA evidence, Gov. Greitens stayed Mr. Williams’ execution in 2017, and formed the board of inquiry to examine it. When Gov. Parson dissolved the board without receiving its report and recommendation about Mr. Williams’ case, he violated the statute, defied the executive order, exceeded his authority, and undermined Mr. Williams’ rights.
“There is clear and convincing evidence that Marcellus Williams did not murder Ms. Gayle. It would be a terrible tragedy for the state to execute Mr. Williams before the board of inquiry completed its commission to make a report and recommendation to the governor as to whether or not Mr. Williams should be executed,” said Charles Weiss, a partner at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, which represents Mr. Williams.
Mr. Williams is represented in this filing by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner (Charles Weiss), the Midwest Innocence Project (Tricia Rojo Bushnell, Rachel Wester, Blair Johnson, Leigh Ann Carroll); and the Innocence Project (Adnan Sultan, Barry Scheck, Tim Gumkowski, Hannah Freedman, and Cecily Burge).
About the Midwest Innocence Project: The Midwest Innocence Project is a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to representing people convicted of crimes they did not commit in Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Iowa, and Nebraska; supporting and empowering freed and exonerated people post-release; and changing the system to prevent wrongful convictions in the first place. The MIP is a member of the Innocence Network, an affiliation of 72 similar organizations around the world, and is a distinct and separate organization from the Innocence Project in New York. For more information, please visit www.themip.org.
About the Innocence Project: The Innocence Project works to free the innocent, prevent wrongful convictions, and create fair, compassionate, and equitable systems of justice for everyone. Founded in 1992 by Barry C.Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University, the organization is now an independent nonprofit. Its work is guided by science and grounded in anti-racism.
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