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Missouri Man On Death Row Files Suit Seeking DNA Testing

Marcellus Williams' execution was postponed in August.
Missouri Department of Corrections

Updated 5:00 pm Wednesday, January 14

In a six-page opinion issued on Wednesday, judge Rodney Sippel dismissed Williams' petition, calling the complaint "frivolous."

Williams, Sippel wrote, had plenty of opportunity at both the state and federal levels to challenge the absence of DNA testing. His failure to do so is the reason that he can't ask for the DNA to be tested now.

Read Sippel's order here.

Our original story.

A Missouri inmate scheduled to die later this month is asking a federal judge to halt his execution and to order DNA testing which, he claims, could prove his innocence. 

Marcellus Williams, 46, was sentenced to death in 2001 for the 1998 robbery and murder of former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Felicia Gayle in her University City home. In December, the court set his execution date for Jan. 28. Although hair and fingernail clippings were found at the scene of the crime and on Gayle's body, the case relied mostly on the testimony of Williams' girlfriend and his cellmate at the medium security jail in north St. Louis where he was being held on other charges in 1999.  

Missouri state law blocks inmates from demanding DNA tests after they are convicted unless: 1) the testing wasn't performed because the technology was not "reasonably available;" 2) neither side was aware of the evidence or 3) the evidence was not available at the time of trial.  None of those conditions applied in Williams' case. His federal and state efforts at post-conviction relief were all denied.

Laurence Komp, Williams' attorney, said a federal civil rights lawsuit is his client's last option.

"There's no back-up plan, or manifest injustice plan, or something like that to allow you to get the testing," he said.

The federal lawsuit filed Monday does not allege that Williams is innocent. But, Komp said, the DNA is crucial to proving that.

"There's no scientific evidence pointing to Marcellus," he said. "The little bit [of testing] that's been done excludes him. Marcellus has never confessed. There was no eyewitness testimony. The state's case rests on two snitches."

Komp has also filed a petition for habeus corpus with the Supreme Court of Missouri, which would compel the state to justify Williams' detention. But the request is expected to have little chance of succeeding. Additionally, he sent a letter to St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch requesting that the evidence be released. A spokesman for McCulloch directed all questions to Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster, whose office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Timeline of the Williams case

  • August 11, 1998 - Felicia Gayle is found stabbed to death in her University City home. The assailant takes her purse and a laptop computer belonging to her husband.
  • August 12, 1998 - When confronted by his girlfriend, Laura Asaro, Marcellus Williams says he murdered Gayle. He threatens to kill Asaro if she tells anyone.
  • August 31 , 1998 - Williams is arrested on separate criminal charges and held in the St. Louis medium security jail known as the workhouse. He is placed in a cell with Henry Cole.
  • June 1999 -  Cole is released from jail and speaks to the University City police about what Williams told him while they shared a cell.
  • November 1999 - University City police contact Asaro who tells them about Williams's confession. Police search a car used in the crime the next day and find items belonging to Gayle. The laptop is also later recovered from a man who had purchased it from Williams
  • 2001 - Williams is convicted of murder, robbery, armed criminal action (for carrying the knife he used to stab Gayle with) and motor vehicle theft. He is sentenced to death and files a direct appeal with the Supreme Court of Missouri.
  • March 2003 - The Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, rejects Williams's appeal.
  • May and September 2003 - Williams files two petitions, one on his own and one with the help of an attorney, for post-conviction relief on several grounds. The federal filing says Williams received little opportunity to make his case. Both petitions were rejected.
  • September 2005 - Williams files a federal habeus corpus case, which is assigned to judge Rodney Sippel.
  • March 30, 2007 - Williams' petitions for DNA testing, additional discovery and an evidentiary hearing are denied. Sippel will later grant a new penalty phase of the trial, saying that Williams' attorney failed to present any evidence that could have convinced a jury to lessen the sentence.
  • July 26, 2010 - Sippel denies a certificate of appeal, a decision that is upheld in December by a panel of the federal appeals court.
  • September 18, 2012 - A second panel overturns Sippel's order that Williams be allowed to challenge his death sentence. An appeal of that decision is rejected.
  • December 19, 2012 - Sippel dismisses Williams'  petition for habeus corpus.
  • May 2, 2013 -  Williams files a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court. 
  • October 27, 2013 - The Supreme Court rejects the petition.
  • December 19, 2014 - Williams asks prosecutor Bob McCulloch to make the evidence available for testing, a request that has so far been refused.
  • January 9, 2015 - Williams files a habeus corpus requset with the Missouri Supreme Court.
  • January 12, 2015 - Williams files his federal civil rights case.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.