Who Is Marcellus Williams: Man Facing Execution in Missouri Despite DNA Evidence Proving Innocence

Mr. Williams is scheduled to be executed on Sept. 24, even as the prosecuting attorney seeks to vacate his wrongful conviction.

Death Penalty 08.15.23 By Innocence Staff

Mr. Williams is scheduled to be executed on Sept. 24, even as the prosecuting attorney seeks to vacate his wrongful conviction.

Death Penalty 08.15.23 By Innocence Staff

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

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

Marcellus Williams is scheduled to be executed on Sept. 24 for a crime DNA proves he did not commit. The St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney reviewed these DNA results and filed a motion to vacate Mr. Williams’s conviction because he believed the DNA results proved by clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Williams did not commit this crime. Although the circuit court has not yet scheduled a hearing to address this motion — and no court has ever considered the new exculpatory evidence — the Missouri Supreme Court set an execution date for Mr. Williams.

Time is running out to stop Missouri from executing an innocent person on Sept. 24. 

Here’s what you need to know about his case:

1. A crime scene covered with forensic evidence contained no link to Mr. Williams.

Mr. Williams has been seeking to prove his innocence throughout the 23 years he has spent on Missouri’s death row. On August 11, 1998, Felicia Gayle, a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, was found stabbed to death in her home. The perpetrator left behind considerable forensic evidence, including fingerprints, footprints, hair, and trace DNA on the murder weapon, a knife from Ms. Gayle’s kitchen. None of this forensic evidence matches Mr. Williams. 

2. The prosecution’s case against Mr. Williams was based entirely on the unreliable testimony of two incentivized witnesses.

The case against Mr. Williams turned on the testimony of two unreliable witnesses who were incentivized by promises of leniency in their own pending criminal cases and reward money. The investigation had gone cold until a jail inmate named Henry Cole, a man with a lengthy record, claimed that Mr. Williams confessed to him that he committed the murder while they were both locked up in jail. Cole directed police to Laura Asaro, a woman who had briefly dated Mr. Williams and had an extensive record of her own. 

Both of these individuals were known fabricators; neither revealed any information that was not either included in media accounts about the case or already known to the police. Their statements were inconsistent with their own prior statements, with each other’s accounts, and with the crime scene evidence, and none of the information they provided could be independently verified. Aside from their testimony, the only evidence connecting Mr. Williams to the crime was a witness who said Mr. Williams sold him a laptop taken from Ms. Gayle’s home, but the jury did not learn that Mr. Williams told the witness he had received the laptop from Laura Asaro.

3. New DNA testing confirms Mr. Williams is innocent, yet no court has considered that evidence.

As he has fought to prove his innocence, Mr. Williams has repeatedly faced imminent execution. To date, no court has given substantive consideration to the evidence exonerating him.  

In 2015, the Missouri Supreme Court stayed Mr. Williams’s execution and appointed a special master to review DNA testing of potentially exculpatory evidence. This testing showed that Mr. Williams was not the source of male DNA found on the murder weapon. 

However, in 2017, after the testing was completed but without conducting a hearing or making any findings based on the outcome of the testing, the appointed special master sent Mr. Williams’ case back to the Missouri Supreme Court. That court, also without considering the DNA testing results, again scheduled Mr. Williams’ execution.

Recognizing that the new evidence raised serious doubts about Mr. Williams’ guilt, then-Governor Eric Greitens stayed the execution and convened a board of inquiry to investigate the case on Aug. 22, 2017, mere hours before Mr. Williams’ execution and after his last meal. Under Missouri law, the stay was to remain in place until the board of inquiry concluded its review and issued a formal report. 

Yet, in June 2023, while the board of inquiry’s review remained ongoing, Governor Mike Parson, without warning or notice, dissolved the board without a report or recommendation from the board. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey then promptly sought a new execution date. Mr. Williams sued Governor Parson because the dissolution of the board without a report or recommendation violated the law and his constitutional rights. The governor tried to dismiss the lawsuit, but a Cole County civil judge denied his request. The governor then asked the Missouri Supreme Court to intervene. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed to intervene, and, on June 4, 2024, it dismissed the lawsuit and immediately scheduled Mr. Williams’ execution for Sept. 24, 2024.

4. In 2024, the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney concluded that Mr. Williams was actually innocent and moved to vacate his conviction.

After the exculpatory DNA evidence was brought to his attention, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell appointed a special prosecutor to review Mr. Williams’ case. The special prosecutor reviewed the findings of three independent DNA experts. All three concluded that Mr. Williams was not the source of male DNA on the weapon, and therefore could not have killed Ms. Gayle. Mr. Williams’ exclusion from the murder weapon is consistent with his exclusion from other forensic evidence collected from the crime scene, including a bloody shoeprint and hairs found near the victim’s body.

Recognizing that “new evidence suggests that Mr. Williams is actually innocent,”  the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney filed a motion to vacate Mr. Williams’ conviction in January 2024. The motion states, “DNA evidence supporting a conclusion that Mr. Williams was not the individual who stabbed Ms. Gayle has never been considered by any court. This never-before-considered evidence, when paired with the relative paucity of other, credible evidence supporting guilt … casts inexorable doubt on Mr. Williams’s conviction and sentence.” The prosecuting attorney urged the circuit court “to begin the process of correcting this manifest injustice by [holding] a hearing on the newfound evidence and the integrity of Mr. Williams’s conviction.” 

5. The Missouri attorney general continues a history of fighting innocence cases.

Although the prosecuting attorney’s motion remains pending and the law requires the court to hold a hearing on it, the Missouri attorney general has taken the position that Mr. Williams’ innocence does not matter, and the Missouri Supreme Court has scheduled his execution. 

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office has argued in other death penalty cases that even DNA evidence of innocence is not enough to stop an execution. In a 2003 oral argument before the Missouri Supreme Court, Justice Laura Denvir Stith asked Assistant Attorney General Frank Jung, “Are you suggesting … even if we find that Mr. Amrine is actually innocent, he should be executed?” “That is correct, your honor,” Jung replied. The Missouri Supreme Court ultimately disagreed, and Mr. Amrine was exonerated. But over 20 years later, the same arguments are still being made.

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office has opposed every innocence case for the last 30 years, including every attempt made by a local prosecutor to overturn a conviction on the basis of innocence, as the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney is doing in Mr. Williams’ case. In 2021 and 2023, Kevin Strickland and Lamar Johnson were exonerated despite the attorney general’s attempts to thwart the prosecutors’ motions to vacate. 

6. Incentivized informants are a leading cause of wrongful convictions.

 Jailhouse informant testimony, like that leading to Mr. Williams’ conviction, is one of the leading contributing factors of wrongful convictions nationally, playing a role in 15% of the 598 DNA-based exoneration cases. Eleven of the 54 individuals exonerated in Missouri were convicted with the use of informant testimony. 

In capital cases, false testimony from incentivized witnesses is the leading cause of wrongful convictions, with informant testimony present in 49.5% of wrongful convictions since the mid-1970s, according to the Center on Wrongful Convictions. 

7. Racial bias contributed to Mr. Williams’ wrongful conviction.

Mr. Williams, a Black man, was wrongfully convicted of murdering a white woman. His jury was comprised of 11 white people and only one Black person. The prosecutor, whose institutional practice of racially discriminatory jury selection has been widely documented, successfully removed six of seven qualified Black prospective jurors with peremptory challenges. A recent study of 400 death-eligible cases in St. Louis County over a 27-year period also revealed racial disparity in the use of the death penalty based upon the race of the victim. People who were convicted were 3.5 times more likely to receive the death penalty if the victim was white, as in this case, compared to if the victim was Black. 

8. Mr. Williams is devoutly religious and an accomplished poet.

During his 23 years in prison, Mr. Williams has devoted much of his time to studying Islam and writing poetry. He serves as the imam for Muslim prisoners at Potosi Correctional Center and is known as “Khaliifah,” meaning leader in Arabic. He has an exemplary prison record and is widely respected within the prison community and beyond.

9. You can help stop Mr. Williams’ unjust execution. 

We have until Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. to stop Mr. Williams’ execution. Here’s how you can help stop this irreversible injustice:

  1. Sign the petition to stop Mr. Williams’ execution.
  2. Share Mr. Williams’ case on all social media channels using our social media toolkit
  3. Use your voice — create an Instagram post, reel, or TikTok to share the background of Mr. Williams’ case, the reasons he’s innocent, and all the missteps in this miscarriage of justice, and urge your followers to sign our petition.

DNA evidence proves that Mr. Williams is actually innocent, and the St. Louis

County prosecuting attorney has moved to vacate his wrongful conviction. Yet, the Missouri attorney general is fighting his innocence, and the Missouri Supreme Court has scheduled his execution for Sept. 24.

With the weight of this new evidence and the unreliability of the witnesses who testified against Mr. Williams, his conviction must be reevaluated to ensure that justice is truly served. Dedicated professionals from the Innocence Project, Midwest Innocence Project, and Bryan Cave, along with attorneys Larry Komp of the Federal Public Defender, Western District of Missouri, and Kent Gipson, make up the team that continues to fight to stop his Sept. 24 execution. They hope that justice will eventually prevail by way of an exoneration.

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Helen Young April 10, 2024 at 12:35 pm Reply   

I know him to be a living and caring person if it had not been for him I Dont think I would have made it. We shared had cuffs the first Time I went to jail on the ride to the work house and he assured me that I would be ok,he was my knight in shining armor and I will never forget the wonder kind friend I met at the worse time in my life!

Jacquelyn Hood April 9, 2024 at 10:46 pm Reply   

The Innocence Project is great. They assisted my cousin in getting his freedom after forty years for a crime he didn’t do. Thank you Lord for this blessing.

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