Missouri’s governor stayed the execution of a death-row inmate on Tuesday, just hours before he was scheduled to die by lethal injection.
Marcellus Williams was sentenced to death in 2001, after being found guilty of stabbing reporter Felicia Gayle to death in 1998. The prosecution argued that Williams had been burglarizing her home when Gayle surprised him, prompting him to stab her 43 times as she tried to fight back.
Over the past year, however, recently tested DNA evidence has raised questions regarding Williams’s guilt. DNA on the murder weapon did not match Williams and instead was found to belong to an unknown male.
Greitens said he will appoint a board of inquiry to review the case and the “newly discovered DNA evidence, which was not available to be considered by the jury that convicted him.” The board will recommend whether Williams’s death penalty will remain or be commuted.
“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment. To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt,” Gov. Eric Greitens said in a statement.
The Missouri Supreme Court previously gave Williams a stay of execution in 2015 to allow time for the new DNA testing, which had not been available at his trial. Williams’s attorneys have maintained his innocence and argue that the DNA evidence exonerates him, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Just last week the state’s highest court denied petitions to stop the execution due to the new evidence. A spokesperson for Attorney General Josh Hawley argued that the DNA tests made no difference since the state had enough non-DNA evidence proving Williams is not innocent. The state said it has two witnesses who said Williams confessed to them, and can also prove that he sold Gayle’s laptop after her murder, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
“The item was a kitchen knife with both male and female DNA on the handle,” Hawley’s office argued in a court filing. “It is reasonable to assume people not involved in the murder handled the knife in the kitchen. And there is no reason to believe Williams would not have worn gloves during a burglary and murder, as he wore a jacket to conceal his bloody shirt after he left the murder scene.”
Williams’s lawyers appealed to Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, circuit justice for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, after rejection by the state Supreme Court. Gorsuch has not yet addressed the case.
So far there have been 16 people executed in the United States this year, one of which was in Missouri. The state has executed 47 men since 2000. Death sentences overall, however, have been decreasing in the United States over the past few decades. In 1996, 315 people were sentenced to death, compared to 31 last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.