Missouri got it wrong before – at least four times, in fact. Now it seems the state is set to kill a man on unreliable witness testimony and physical evidence supporting his innocence again.
Joseph Amrine and Reggie Griffin were each sentenced to death row for crimes they did not commit. Joe spent 17 years wrongly on death row, and Reggie spent 23. They spent this past weekend hoping for the best possible result for Marcellus – a commutation of his scheduled execution on Tuesday, August 22, at 6 p.m.
While everyone does their time and handles being on death row differently, says Joe, they’re all impacted deeply. “It’s even harder when you know you’re innocent.”
“He’s going through mental hell right now,” says Reggie.
Even now, six years after his exoneration, Reggie says executions are a struggle for him to watch and learn about. He knows what Marcellus is going through.
“These days are hard for me,” he says. “I know they don’t care about him because they didn’t care about me.”
Neither man was surprised to learn that the Missouri Supreme Court refused to even hear the DNA evidence that exonerates Marcellus Williams, despite staying his 2015 execution to conduct the testing.
“They’re not seeking the truth – they’re seeking a conviction,” says Reggie. “A conviction is a feather in their cap.”
“They can know they’re wrong,” says Joe, “”And they won’t admit it.”
Joe was released in June 2003 after the Missouri Supreme Court overturned his conviction and death sentence. Joe had been sentenced to death for the murder of a fellow prison inmate, Gary Barber. Joe maintained his innocence since the incident, and investigators were never able to find any physical evidence linking Joe to the crime. Joe was convicted mainly because of the testimony of fellow inmates, three of whom later recanted their testimony, admitting that they lied in exchange for protection. Six other prisoners testified that Joe had been playing cards elsewhere in the prison when Barber was fatally stabbed.
While on death row, Joe had selected music for a funeral service scheduled to follow his lethal injection.
Similar to Joe’s case, Marcellus Williams’ current conviction relies on the testimony of two witnesses with questionable motives, and his conviction stands in spite of the overwhelming physical evidence against him.
Reggie grew up on the streets of St. Louis. At a young age, he got into a fight with a rival and ended up in prison, on an assault charge. He became an inmate at Moberly Correctional Center. While there, Reggie heard about three guys stabbing a fellow inmate to death. He was later stunned when he was charged with the crime and convicted, based on the word of two jailhouse informants who received reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony. After receiving a death sentence in 1988, Reggie spent about 23 years on the row, fearing for his life. While on death row, Missouri executed Reggie’s uncle, whom Reggie believes was innocent.
In 2011, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Reggie’s death sentence because prosecutors had withheld critical evidence: a report showing that Moberly guards had confiscated a sharpened screwdriver from another inmate, Jeffrey Smith, immediately after the stabbing. Both of Reggie’s co-defendants consistently said the third person involved in the crime was Jeffrey Smith, not Reggie. Reggie was released in 2013 and is the 4th person exonerated from death row in Missouri.
As of 2017, a total of 158 men have been exonerated in the United States.
Reggie and Joe are both black men, convicted by all-white juries. Similarly, Marcellus’ conviction and sentence was handed down by 11 white jurors and 1 black juror.
Missouri is at a precipice of racial relations, and the death penalty magnifies these tense dynamics to a cruel degree. As Nimrod Chapel, Jr., president of the Missouri Chapter of the NAACP, wrote in an opinion Monday: “Missouri’s approach to capital punishment is the linchpin of a system that fails to accord value and respect for black lives. We see it in the courtroom, in jails, at traffic stops, in the world of employment and in places of public accommodation. It is no wonder we hear of people who do not feel safe living in or even traveling to a state which gives out punishment on the basis of skin color. Why do homicides involving white female victims result in capital sentences 14 times more often than those involving black male victims?”
Marcellus’ pending execution has received international and national attention as a compelling case of innocence. The Kansas City Star editorial board has called it “exactly the kind of case that makes even some supporters of the death penalty queasy.”
Jeffrey Mittman, head of the Missouri American Civil Liberties Union, wrote in an opinion, “We do know his representation was inadequate and the state must prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We must call on our elected officials to recognize the error-prone nature of the death penalty, and to restore the presumption of innocence in the face of bias.”
Amnesty International, the NAACP, and Equal Justice USA have all called for a halt to Marcellus’ execution.
The Innocence Project and the Midwest Innocent Project have called on Missouri Governor Eric Greitens to appoint an independent board of inquiry to evaluate Marcellus’ conviction and death sentence as the DNA evidence “affirmatively excluded” Marcellus as the perpetrator. “The state should not put a man to death without fully examining the case against him,” the request says.
The Libertarian Party has condemned the execution as “a shocking miscarriage of justice for the individual and as another tragic example of the immorality that lies at the root of capital punishment and its use nationwide.”
Meanwhile, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley doubled down on his claim that “the state remains confident in other evidence in the case.”
As of Monday evening, the Change.Org petition to save Marcellus is approaching 175,000 signatures.