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Williams death penalty review panel hears new evidence

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
An illustration of Marcellus Williams. A panel of retired judges is reviewing new DNA evidence in his case.

A panel of five retired judges heard arguments Wednesday over whether new DNA evidence in the Marcellus Williams death penalty case is enough to exonerate him or at least warrant a new trial.

Williams, 49, was sentenced in 2001 for the 1998 murder of Lisha Gayle, a former reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

His execution was scheduled one year ago today, but was postponed by then Gov. Eric Greitens. He later created the panel to examine the new evidence, which showed Williams’ DNA was not on the knife used in the murder. Instead, it contained the DNA of a still unidentified person.

The Missouri attorney general’s office declined to comment after the hearing, but has said in past interviews that there’s plenty of other evidence that Williams is guilty.

Stacey Pratt, who heads Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, cited statistics from University of North Carolina researcher Frank Baumgartner to suggest that Williams was sentenced to die because of his race.

“A person of color who is facing a capital sentence is 14 times more likely to receive one if the victim is a white female,” she said. “It’s against that context and backdrop we have to make sure that justice is done here, and that it is possible for the people of the state of Missouri to have faith that we have a just and fair system.”

Williams’ son, Marcellus Williams II, remains hopeful.

“My father, he always says ‘everything is God’s will,’ so we trust the whole legal team, so we’re counting on them to get it done, so I’m feeling real good about it,” he said. “It’s a slow process, but slow motion is better than no motion.”

Wednesday’s hearing was closed to the public, and attorneys for both sides declined to discuss what happened. That included Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project and a former member of O.J. Simpson’s “dream team” of attorneys.

“By statute and by agreement, none of us are saying anything – that’s the law,” Scheck said. “But it was a very professional, very fair hearing, and we appreciated it.”

Gov. Mike Parson will have final say once the panel makes its recommendation.

Follow Marshall on Twitter: @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.