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5 years after execution reprieve, no resolution for Marcellus Williams

Rici Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio
Five years ago, then-Gov. Eric Greitens halted the execution of Marcellus Williams to consider new evidence, but there's been no resolution.

On Aug. 22, 2017, Marcellus Williams was hours away from being executed.

Williams had been convicted of the 1998 murder of former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Felicia Gayle, who was found stabbed to death in her home in University City. He’d maintained his innocence, but courts had upheld the conviction and the death sentence multiple times.

Then, at the last minute, former Gov. Eric Greitens stepped in. He postponed Williams’ execution and appointed a board of inquiry to examine new DNA evidence that seemed to back Williams’ claim of innocence.

"A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment,” Greitens said in a statement at the time. “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt. In light of new information, I am appointing a Board of Inquiry in this case.”

Five years later, Williams, now 53, remains behind bars at the Potosi Correctional Center. That board of inquiry last met on July 21, 2021, said one of its members, retired Judge Michael David, and made oral recommendations to Gov. Mike Parson. But the governor has yet to act.

Another former member, retired Judge Paul Spinden, said the board met about once a quarter in the four years it was operational. Spinden said Parson gave no indication about if or when he might act on the members' recommendations.

A spokeswoman for Parson would not answer any questions about the status of the inquiry, citing a state law that says, “all information gathered by the board shall be received and held by it and the governor in strict confidence.”

Michelle Smith, the director of community outreach and advocacy for Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said her group and others opposed to the death penalty see politics in the lack of information.

“That honestly is a political stand, because you honestly want to come off as someone who is tough on crime, and who is going to make sure that people convicted get their punishment.”

Smith said she hopes Parson understands that wrongful convictions can and do happen.

“And when an error or a mistake comes to light, it is also part of their job within justice to make sure that there aren’t innocent people sitting in prison,” she said.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

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