St. Louis County Prosecutor Seeks to Prevent Execution of Missouri Death Row Inmate

By Varun Noronha

ST. LOUIS, MO – Marcellus Williams, age 55, who has spent more than 23 years of his life on death row in Missouri, is receiving help now from Wesley Bell, a prosecuting attorney in St. Louis County, who said he intends to prove Williams is not guilty.

The Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) reports Williams was sentenced to death in 2001 after being convicted of first-degree murder for the 1998 stabbing of newspaper reporter Felicia Gayle.

In late January, Bell filed a motion to vacate Williams’ conviction with the St. Louis County Circuit Court.

Bell’s motion was enabled by a 2021 Missouri law that allows local prosecutors to step in if they have “information that the convicted person may be innocent.”

According to the Associated Press, two wrongful convictions have already been overturned through the process established by this law, leading to the release of Kevin Strickland and Lamar Johnson from prison.

As described in The Intercept, both Strickland and Johnson’s innocence claims were met with strident opposition from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office.

Under this law, Bell’s motion necessitates a hearing before a judge. At the hearing, which has not yet been scheduled, Bell plans to present exculpatory DNA evidence that has never been seen in court.

Writing for The Intercept, Jordan Smith explains the court denied DNA testing of crime scene evidence prior to Williams’ initial trial and sentencing, and, in 2015, the Missouri Supreme Court stayed Williams’ execution and ordered testing of the murder weapon, which revealed DNA multiple experts agreed was inconsistent with Williams’ DNA.

Upon seeing the test results, the Midwest Innocence Project, which currently represents Williams, asked former Gov. Eric Greitens to intervene. Per The Intercept, Greitens acquiesced hours before Williams was set to die, issuing a 2017 executive order that halted the execution and convened a board of judges to investigate the case.

The Associated Press reports that current Gov. Mike Parson dissolved the board in 2023 before it reported any findings and permitted the Missouri Attorney General’s Office to move forward with the execution.

Bell’s efforts are at least partially motivated by the state’s eagerness to execute Williams. In his motion, Bell notes that “this request is made all the more urgent because the Attorney General’s Office has requested an execution date for Mr. Williams.”

Building on the DNA evidence, the motion to vacate lists several facts which cast doubt on the conviction: the absence of physical evidence tying Williams to the crime scene, the contradictions in key witness testimony, the mistakes made by Williams’ trial counsel, and the racially discriminatory jury selection practices employed by the prosecution.

According to The Intercept, the Attorney General’s Office has argued that challenging the integrity of convictions decreases faith in the system.

In contrast, Bell’s motion contends, “Public confidence in the justice system is restored, not undermined, when a prosecutor is accountable for a wrongful or constitutionally infirm conviction.”

About The Author

The Vanguard Court Watch operates in Yolo, Sacramento and Sacramento Counties with a mission to monitor and report on court cases. Anyone interested in interning at the Courthouse or volunteering to monitor cases should contact the Vanguard at info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org - please email info(at)davisvanguard(dot)org if you find inaccuracies in this report.

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