MO Governor Grants Stay of Execution Hours Before State Murder of Innocent Black Man Exonerated by DNA

From [HERE] The governor of Missouri on Tuesday issued a stay of execution for a man who had been scheduled to be killed that evening.

The inmate, Marcellus Williams, 48, was convicted in 2001 in the murder of a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, Lisha Gayle, who was stabbed to death during a home invasion in 1998.

His lawyers, who had appealed to the governor for clemency and had asked the United States Supreme Court to stay the execution, had argued that Mr. Williams was exonerated by new DNA evidence.

Gov. Eric Greitens said in a statement announcing the decision that he was forming a board of inquiry to report on the case and advise whether Mr. Williams should be executed.

“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment,” the governor said. “To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt.”

Kent E. Gipson, a lawyer for Mr. Williams, had said that a test conducted in December showed that the DNA recovered from the knife used to kill Ms. Gayle did not match Mr. Williams’s and instead pointed toward an unknown man. Mr. Gipson also cited previous DNA evidence recovered from the victim’s shirt and fingernails, as well as footprints captured at the scene, none of which appeared to belong to Mr. Williams.

In an interview after the governor’s announcement, Mr. Gipson said he was “looking forward to the chance to get all this out in the open.”

“I’m confident that we’re going to get a favorable recommendation,” he said.

He said that to his knowledge, a Missouri governor had not granted such a stay in at least 20 years.

Mr. Gipson said his co-counsel was at the state’s Bonne Terre correctional facility where Mr. Williams is being held and had told him the news in person.

In response to the governor’s decision, Loree Anne Paradise, a deputy chief of staff for Missouri’s attorney general, Josh Hawley, said, “We remain confident in the judgment of the jury and the many courts that have carefully reviewed Mr. Williams’s case over 16 years.”

She had said in an earlier statement that the new DNA evidence was not sufficient to stop the execution.

“Based on the other, non-DNA evidence in this case, our office is confident in Marcellus Williams’s guilt and plans to move forward,” she said. Ms. Paradise did not respond to questions asking for specifics.

Sam Spital, the director of litigation at the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which was not involved in Mr. Williams’s defense, said the governor’s decision to stay the execution so close to the deadline was “rare but not unprecedented.”

“It’s significant in part because the governor recognizes that when you have capital punishment as an issue, the people of Missouri, like the people of many states, need to have absolute confidence that the conviction is sound,” he said.

He said that Mr. Williams had strong evidence on his side and that the case was “marred by racial discrimination” because six of seven potential black jurors were struck from the jury pool. Mr. Williams is black and Ms. Gayle was white.

Mr. Gipson argued in his appeal to the United States Supreme Court that the case was not only about Mr. Williams’s innocence, but also a pressing question of due process. He said that a persuasive case of innocence based on DNA testing should prompt a court hearing, given the method’s reliability compared with that of circumstantial or other evidence not based on DNA.

Robert Dunham, the executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which compiles statistics related to capital punishment, said Mr. Williams’s case presented meaningful issues to the court regardless of the governor’s decision.

“Irrespective of whatever the Board of Inquiry ultimately recommends, the Court should still review Williams’ case and should clearly declare that the constitution guarantees that death-row prisoners who present substantial evidence of their innocence be given a meaningful opportunity to prove it in court,” Mr. Dunham said in a statement.

Missouri’s Supreme Court granted Mr. Williams a stay of execution in 2015 to permit the new DNA testing. But last week the court denied a motion to stay the execution based on the new evidence, without comment.

Missouri has executed 88 people since 1976, the fifth most in the nation, and is one of only three states that have executed at least one person each year since 2013. One person was executed in Missouri last year, and Mr. Williams would have been the second person executed by the state in 2017.

One of 10 prisoners executed by the state in 2014 was Herbert Smulls, who was killed while his case was still being appealed in court. His execution came shortly before a federal appeals court ruled that defense lawyers were not entitled to information about how the pharmacy hired by the state synthesizes drugs used for lethal injection. (Missouri is one of several states that has struggled to procure drugs for lethal injection, as manufacturers have declined to sell the drugs to correctional facilities.)

Before the governor’s decision was announced, Mr. Gipson said he did not expect the state to act without hearing from the United States Supreme Court, as it did in 2014. But other than that, he said he did not know what to expect.

“The optimist side of me wants to be optimistic, thinking that somebody in power will look at this and say, ‘This is not something that can take place in a civilized country,’” Mr. Gipson said. “But the pessimist in me has seen too many things like this happen.”