‘Death Row Limbo’ – Man Faces Execution Jan. 3 Despite Evidence to Contrary

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By The Vanguard Staff

KANSAS CITY, MO – A man in what news reports have called “death row limbo” —he’s spent 24 years on death row—could be executed as early as Jan. 3 here, according to the Midwest Innocence Project.

The project said Missouri Gov. Mike Parson lifted the stay of 53-year-old Marcellus Williams’ execution last June, and Williams could die “for a murder DNA evidence proves someone else committed.”

The project added this week, “If St. Louis County Attorney Wesley Bell doesn’t intervene, the Missouri Supreme Court could dismiss Mr. Williams’s lawsuit and set an execution date for Mr. Williams as early as Jan. 3, 2024.”

The murder Williams is accused of committing came in 1998 when Felici Gayle, a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch Reporter in St. Louis, was stabbed to death 16 times in her own home.

Williams was convicted of the first-degree murder, robbery, and burglary of Gayle based on, said the Innocence Project, “inconsistent testimonies of two incentivized witnesses, with no concrete physical evidence linking him to the crime scene.”

One of the witnesses, Henry Cole, only reached out to police 10 months after the crime, when all leads, added Williams’ defense claims, “had run cold and (Cole) saw an opportunity to secure a deal for himself on his own cases. He told investigators that Mr. Williams had admitted to the crime while they were both in prison and that he would testify to that if they helped him in return.”

However, 2016 testing of DNA samples taken from the murder weapon excluded Williams as a contributor, proving he did not commit the crime and contradicting the testimony used to convict him, said the Midwest Innocence Project.

Six years ago, former Gov. Eric Greitens stepped in and ordered the investigation. Greitens’ action followed the release of new DNA testing unavailable at the time of the killing: DNA found on the murder weapon matched another unknown person, not Williams.

“There’s enough doubt in this case that his sentence should at least be commuted,” Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck told CBS News. “The skin cells on the handle of the knife that was used in this murder are not from him.”

The Midwest Innocence Project notes there are at least five big reasons Williams should be free.

One, Williams has been excluded as the source of the DNA found on the murder weapon. Gayle was stabbed 16 times, and one of the kitchen knives was found protruding from her neck. In 2016, post-conviction DNA testing conducted on the handle of that knife detected the presence of male DNA and excluded Mr. Williams as the source.

Two, no court has reviewed the exculpatory DNA evidence, which has been reviewed and analyzed by three renowned DNA experts who have all concluded Williams is not the source of the DNA on the knife handle.

Three, the prosecution’s case against Williams was based entirely on the unreliable testimony of two incentivized witnesses: Cole, a prison informant, and Williams’ ex-girlfriend, Laura Asaro. However, the credibility of both these testimonies has significant grounds for skepticism, claims the defense.

Cole initially refused to participate as a witness in Ms. Gayle’s case until he was promised payment and then made it clear in the 2001 deposition that he would not have come forward if it hadn’t been for the $5,000 he was given by prosecutors, said the defense, noting “several details in his testimony were strikingly similar to the information that had been published in newspapers about the murder, suggesting he may have been fed this information directly or indirectly.”

Asaro, too, had a history of deception, said the Midwest Innocence Project, and had faced solicitation charges when police initially approached her about the case in Nov. 1999. The project noted that Asaro had worked with the police before and lied under oath in her recorded deposition regarding her arrest history. At some stage, police had considered charging her as an accomplice in the crime. Asaro told her neighbor she was receiving money for her testimony against Mr. Williams.

The project said the “narratives from Cole and Asaro were significantly different and didn’t match the crime scene evidence,” adding “Asaro testified that Mr. Williams had scratch marks on him, but there was no foreign DNA present underneath Ms. Gayle’s fingernails.

“The only evidence connecting Mr. Williams to Ms. Gayle’s murder was the testimony of Mr. Cole and Ms. Asaro.  According to the National Registry of Exonerations, incentivized witness testimony has contributed to 14% of death penalty cases that later led to a DNA exoneration. The two incentivized witnesses in this case were motivated by the reward money and favorable treatment in their own criminal cases,” said the Midwest Innocence Project.

Four, no scientific or eyewitness evidence, or motive, connects Williams to the murder, said the project, explaining “no one saw Mr. Williams anywhere near Ms. Gayle’s house. Police found bloody shoe prints at the scene and concluded that they did not belong to Mr. Williams. They also collected and tested biological evidence from the scene and determined that none of this biological evidence belonged to Mr. Williams.”

Five, in 2017, then-Gov. Greitens stayed Williams’s execution because of the powerful exculpatory DNA results. He intervened just hours before Williams’ scheduled execution, signing an executive order postponing the date. This was not the first time Williams’ execution had been put on hold.

The project said, “Gov. Greitens assembled a board of inquiry to thoroughly investigate the case and review all the evidence that had been presented at the trial. The board was also tasked with reviewing newly found DNA evidence and any other pertinent evidence to which the jury may not have had access. 

“The order granted the board the authority to demand testimony and information, and required it to keep its proceedings and all collected information confidential. The executive order clarified that the execution would be postponed until the governor had decided whether Mr. Williams should be granted mercy, based on the board’s findings.

“However, it is unclear if any report has ever been issued. Mr. William’s legal team never received a report, and Parson dissolved the board without giving any indication that he had received a recommendation, and if so, what it was.”

Williams’ supporters claim the “case is riddled with unreliable incentivized testimonies and a complete absence of physical evidence linking him to the crime scene. The lack of consideration by any court of the exculpatory DNA evidence, which indisputably excluded Mr. Williams as a contributor, calls into question the validity of his conviction. Despite the evidence pointing to his innocence, Mr. Williams remains on death row more than two decades after his initial arrest.”

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