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Execution date set for Missouri inmate, even as he awaits hearing on claim of actual innocence

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The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday set a Sept. 24 execution date for Marcellus Williams, even as the inmate awaits a court hearing on his claim that he was not involved in the murder that landed him on death row.

The state Supreme Court set the date hours after it ruled that Republican Gov. Mike Parson was within his rights last year when he dissolved a board of inquiry convened six years earlier by Parson’s predecessor to investigate Williams’ innocence claim.

Williams, 55, was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1998 death of Lisha Gayle during a robbery of her suburban St. Louis home. He was hours away from execution in August 2017 when then-Gov. Eric Greitens, also a Republican, halted the process and ordered an investigation. Greitens cited DNA testing unavailable at the time of the killing showing that DNA on the knife used to stab Gayle matched someone else, not Williams.

Separately, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell filed a motion in January to vacate the murder conviction. Bell cited the new DNA evidence and said he believed Williams was not involved in Gayle’s death. A 2021 Missouri law allows prosecuting attorneys to file a motion to vacate a conviction if they believe the inmate could be innocent or was otherwise erroneously convicted. The filing prompts a hearing before a judge.

But a hearing date on Bell’s motion has not been set. A spokesman for Bell said Bell’s office is still “digesting the Missouri Supreme Court’s actions of today.”

Parson dissolved the inquiry board in June 2023 after it failed to reach any conclusion, saying it was time to “move forward” on the case. It wasn’t clear why the board comprised of five retired judges never reached a conclusion.

The day after Parson dissolved the board, Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey asked the state Supreme Court to set an execution date.

The Midwest Innocence Project filed a lawsuit on behalf of Williams in August, contending that Greitens’ order required the inquiry board to provide a report and recommendation — but Parson received neither.

The state Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling on Tuesday stated that the “Missouri Constitution vests the governor with exclusive constitutional authority to grant or deny clemency and Williams has no statutory or due process right to the board of inquiry process.”

Parson’s spokesman, Johnathan Shiflett, said the governor’s authority “was clear, as affirmed by the Supreme Court of Missouri today.”

Tricia Rojo Bushnell, an attorney for the Midwest Innocence Project, said in a statement that the fight will continue to prove Williams’ innocence.

“We look forward to presenting the evidence of his innocence in court alongside St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell, who has filed a motion to vacate Mr. Williams’ conviction. This injustice can still be righted,” Bushnell said.

Prosecutors at the time of the crime said Williams broke a window pane to get inside Gayle’s home on Aug. 11, 1998, heard water running in the shower, and found a large butcher knife. When Gayle came downstairs, she was stabbed 43 times. Her purse and her husband’s laptop were stolen. Gayle was a social worker who previously worked as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Authorities said Williams stole a jacket to conceal blood on his shirt. Williams’ girlfriend asked him why he would wear a jacket on such a hot day. The girlfriend said she later saw the laptop in the car and that Williams sold it a day or two later.

Prosecutors also cited testimony from Henry Cole, who shared a St. Louis cell with Williams in 1999 while Williams was jailed on unrelated charges. Cole told prosecutors Williams confessed to the killing and offered details about it.

Williams’ attorneys responded that the girlfriend and Cole were both convicted felons out for a $10,000 reward.

By JIM SALTER
Associated Press

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