By Jeremy Kohler
Gov. Eric Greitens called off an execution on Tuesday so the state could make sure it sentenced a guilty man to death.
Greitens granted a stay of execution to Marcellus Williams, who had been facing death by injection at 6 p.m. for the 1998 murder of Lisha Gayle at her home in University City. Williams' attorneys had claimed that recent DNA tests could prove their client's innocence.
With a little more than four hours to go before the execution was scheduled to begin, Greitens said he was appointing a board of inquiry to investigate the case in light of an "inconclusive" DNA test.
"A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment," he said in a statement. "To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt."
Attorneys for Marcellus Williams have insisted he could be innocent, after DNA found on the murder weapon did not match Williams' DNA.
Kent Gipson, a Kansas City-based attorney for Williams, said the governor's action was "good news" and said the appointment of a board of inquiry was a "rare thing" for a Missouri capital case.
Greitens invoked a rarely used state law giving him discretion to appoint a board of inquiry to gather information and report back on whether a person condemned to death should be executed. Then-Gov. Mel Carnahan convened two such boards in the 1990s.
Greitens said the five-member board would include retired Missouri judges and have the power to subpoena witnesses and evidence. His executive order said all of the proceedings would be closed to the public.
Williams, 48, was sentenced to death in 2001. The prosecution said Williams was burglarizing the home when Gayle, who had been taking a shower, surprised him. She fought for her life as she was stabbed repeatedly.
Williams' attorneys claim recent DNA tests could prove Williams' innocence.
The Missouri Supreme Court in 2015 postponed Williams' execution to allow time for the DNA tests. Using technology that was not available at the time of the killing, those tests show that DNA found on the knife matched an unknown male, according to an analysis by Greg Hampikian, a biologist with Boise State University. Williams' DNA was not found on the knife.
Despite that finding, the state's high court denied his petition to stop the execution and either appoint a special master to hear his innocence claim or vacate the death sentence and order his sentence commuted to life in prison.
Williams' attorneys have also petitioned Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, circuit justice for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, to stop the execution. Gorsuch had not ruled by Tuesday evening.
Williams' attorneys were hoping for further DNA tests to compare the case to another slaying in 1998, the unsolved stabbing death of Debra McClain in Pagedale.
"Americans don't want their states executing innocent people," said Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based nonprofit clearinghouse for studies and reports related to capital punishment. "They want assurances that the evidence is at least carefully reviewed before people are executed. And this decision backs Missouri off the brink here."
He said the U.S. Supreme Court should still review the case and "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."
In its response to the U.S. Supreme Court, the state said it had a wealth of non-DNA evidence to convict Williams. The state could prove Williams had sold Gayle's laptop to a third party after the killing, and had two witnesses who independently said he confessed to them. And, the state said, the lack of his DNA on the murder weapon did not mean he was innocent.
One of the witnesses was Henry Cole, who shared a cell with Williams in the Workhouse in 1999. He testified that he had heard a report on TV about a $10,000 reward offered by Gayle's family, and that Williams told him "I pulled the caper ... I laid that down."
Cole told police about Laura Asaro, Williams' former girlfriend. She would later testify that when police confronted her, she told them that Williams had admitted killing Gayle. She helped police recover the computer with serial numbers that confirmed it had been stolen from Gayle's house.
Neither Cole nor Asaro could be reached on Tuesday. An Ansaro relative said Williams' ex-girlfriend "doesn't have a statement to give and doesn't want to be contacted."
Gayle was a Post-Dispatch reporter from 1981 to 1992. She left the paper to do volunteer social work with children and the poor. Her husband, Dr. Daniel Picus, declined to comment through a family member.
A spokeswoman for Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, wrote in an email that "we remain confident in the judgment of the jury and the many courts that have carefully reviewed Mr. Williams' case over (16) years. We applaud the work of the numerous law enforcement officers who have dedicated their time and effort to pursuing justice in this case."
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, whose office prosecuted Williams, said in a prepared statement that he was "confident that any Board and the Governor, after a full review of all evidence and information, will reach the same conclusion reached by the Jury and the various Courts."
However, he said the statute invoked by Greitens pertained only to criminal proceedings involving mental illness, which was "not an allegation made by Williams."
The case has attracted national attention because no forensic evidence ever pointed to Williams, and now what has been tested pointed away from him. Protesters across the state broke into celebrations after hearing about Greitens' action.
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