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St. Louis County prosecutor files motion to throw out conviction of Marcellus Williams

Rici Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell has filed a motion to vacate the conviction of Marcellus Williams, portrayed here in a 2017 illustration.

Marcellus Williams has always maintained he did not stab former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Felicia Gayle to death in her University City home in 1998.

Now, he is getting another chance to make that argument to a judge.

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell filed a motion Friday asking a judge to vacate the conviction and death sentence of Williams. DNA testing rules out Williams as the perpetrator, Bell wrote, and that plus the lack of any other credible evidence connecting him to the crime cast “inexorable doubt on Mr. Williams’ conviction and sentence.”

Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, said Williams and his legal team are “incredibly thankful” that Bell decided to file the motion.

“We know what this evidence proves,” she said. “It’s just needed to be able to get in front of a judge. We are just really looking forward to that opportunity.”

This is the first time Bell has used a 2021 state law to attempt to vacate a conviction. The other attempts, in the cases of Kevin Strickland in Kansas City and Lamar Johnson in St. Louis, have been successful.

Gayle’s husband, Dr. Daniel Picus, did not immediately return a message seeking comment. In a 2017 opinion piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Picus’ second wife called the renewed media attention to the case when a stay was granted “an unbearable reminder of an unthinkable crime, a lengthy, heartbreaking trial, a no-win judgment and a still-unresolved case.”

“Part of why we work so hard to prevent wrongful convictions is so that no one else has to feel this way,” Bushnell said. “A lot of people are harmed when there is a wrongful conviction, and Dr. Picus and his family are one of them.”

A spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey, whose office would be allowed to question witnesses during hearings on the motion, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The office under Eric Schmitt, now a U.S. senator, took an aggressive opposing stance in earlier proceedings.

There is no timetable for those hearings to begin.

The motion comes at a fraught time for Williams.

In 2017, just hours before he was scheduled to be executed, then-Gov. Eric Greitens issued a stay and appointed a board of inquiry to review the DNA evidence. But Gov. Mike Parson dissolved that board in June 2023, writing in an executive order that “withdrawing the order allows the process to proceed within the judicial system, and, once the due process of law has been exhausted, everyone will receive certainty." That also dissolved the stay of execution.

The Midwest Innocence Project sued Parson, saying he could not legally dissolve the board before it completed its duties as required by law, including making public recommendations. Bailey intervened to stop that lawsuit from moving forward, and last month the state Supreme Court halted it temporarily. It could move to make that order permanent at any time, which would also mean it could set an execution date for Williams.

Attorney Kent Gipson, who has worked on Williams’ case for 19 years, said he would be surprised if the judges moved forward while Bell’s motion was pending.

“It would be the same thing as executing someone before they exhaust their normal appeals, and I don’t see that happening,” Gipson said. “But stranger things have happened.”

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