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Three Years Later, Still No Movement in University City Death Penalty Case

Rici Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio
It's been three years since then-Gov. Eric Greitens stayed the execution of Marcellus Williams so a panel could review new evidence in his case and determine if a death sentence was still appropriate.

In 2017, then-Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens postponed the execution of Marcellus Williams and announced that he would appoint a board of inquiry to review new evidence in the case.

That was exactly three years ago this Saturday, and Williams remains on death row at the state prison in Potosi. Opponents of capital punishment are urging Gov. Mike Parson to act on the case.

A jury sentenced Williams, now 51, to death for the 1998 murder of former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Lisha Gayle in her University City home during a burglary. State and federal courts upheld the conviction, saying there was sufficient evidence to support the verdict.

The Missouri Supreme Court would later postpone his execution to allow for DNA testing, which Williams’ attorneys said proved he could not have committed the crime. A board of inquiry was appointed to review the new evidence and determine if a death sentence remained appropriate.

The Missouri state branch of the NAACP was “elated” when the reprieve was granted in 2017, said President Nimrod Chapel.

“While we’re still very happy that Marcellus is still with us, we would like to have him physically with us in this free world,” Chapel said. “The pandemic has to have played some role in slowing down the process. We trust in the leadership of Gov. Parson on this issue and are waiting for that final determination.”

A spokeswoman for Parson said the board continues to review the case and “has been working on it through the pandemic remotely as much as possible.” She offered no timeline for when a report might be completed. The board heard evidence in the case in 2018.

Death penalty opponents called the three-year delay “excessive.”

“But it is not out of sync as to how this administration’s been handling clemency cases,” said Elyse Max, executive director of Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. “I know there are thousands of clemency petitions that have been unaddressed by this administration.”

Max said the delay was particularly concerning because of the risk of the coronavirus spreading through prisons. There have been no cases among inmates at Potosi, though prison staff have tested positive, according to Department of Corrections data.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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