The Missouri Supreme Court has stayed the execution of Marcellus Williams, based on concerns over DNA evidence found at the scene of the crime. Following closely on the heels of MADP’s Lobby Day in Jefferson City, and outreach by citizens and MADP members, the Supreme Court’s decision represents a response to well-articulated concerns about the death penalty.
Lobby Day included presentations by representatives from the NAACP, the ACLU, the ABA Death Penalty Assessment Team, and a former director of the Innocence Project policy team. Paul Litton, University of Missouri Law Professor, and co-chair of the ABA Death Penalty Assessment Team, identified several problems with Missouri’s approach to capital punishment. Speaking of the team of prosecutors, former judges, and criminal justice lawyers, he noted, “We found …areas in which our death penalty system is in need of reform in order to provide fairness and reduce the risk of executing the undeserving. First, Missouri has inadequate measures to protect against wrongful convictions of the innocent. To illustrate, Missouri does not require the preservation of biological evidence for as long as a capital defendant remains incarcerated. Thus, not all defendants will be able to obtain DNA testing of evidence that could prove their innocence. An innocent inmate who could otherwise prove innocence through DNA testing will not be able to do so if evidence if destroyed or otherwise not preserved.”
Similarly, Steve Saloom, possessing a decade of history with The Innocence Project, testified regarding the dangers associated with the conviction and punishment of the innocent. “Across America, our justice systems are simply systems for dispensing justice. Being bureaucracies staffed by humans, they are unavoidably imperfect. That is a simple fact we must accept. We do not, however, simply have to accept the problems in these systems that threaten to create injustice, and which can be fixed. That being the case, Missourians should consider their government’s death penalty system. Missouri is executing people at a shocking pace, despite the fact that the best legal minds find Missouri’s death penalty system riddled with problems that can cause injustices – and even the execution of innocent people. The case of Marcellus Williams is a terrifying, shining example of such horror, and the systemic problems that create such significant concerns. In short, unexamined DNA evidence could demonstrate the man’s innocence, yet he’s scheduled to be executed on January 28th because of a Missouri death penalty system that often recklessly disregards truth and justice.
Mr. Williams was convicted of stabbing Felicia Gayle to death. Mr. Williams has always maintained his innocence, but was ultimately convicted based on nothing but circumstantial evidence and unreliable informant testimony. One informant has a history of falsely informing on others in exchange for leniency for his own criminal activity, as well as a history of mental illness. The other was addicted to crack and promised leniency for her criminal problems. Both wanted the $10,000 reward offered. What’s more, their stories are inconsistent with each others’, despite likely having been coached by police and/or prosecutors. It’s shocking that Missouri would execute anyone based on such thin evidence. Life in prison would be much safer. What’s worse is that DNA could tell us all the truth, the state wants to ignore that potential truth and just kill the man. Why?
There was significant blood, hair, and other biological evidence at the crime scene. The DNA found under Ms. Gayle’s fingernails – which is most likely to match the killer – does not match Mr. Williams. In fact, none of the DNA matches Mr. Williams. For unexplained reasons, the other evidence has never been DNA tested.”
Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould, of Missouri Faith Voices and Pastor of the Quinn Chapel AME Church, suggested that we ask of ourselves “Who are we in Missouri? Are we a culture that celebrates death? or integrity?” Rod Chapel, President of the Jefferson City NAACP, highlighted deep concerns over the disparate racial impact of the death penalty in Missouri. Sarah Rossi, Director of Policy and Advocacy with the ACLU of Missouri, joined in the coalition and expressed ACLU’s deep commitment to fighting these injustices. MADP’s new State Coordinator Staci Pratt moderated the discussion, emphasizing the need to end Missouri’s reckless rush to executions.