Missouri prosecutor seeks to overturn the conviction of an inmate who has spent decades on death row

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ST. LOUIS (AP) — A Missouri prosecutor now believes that inmate Marcellus Williams is innocent of the crime that landed him on death row and very nearly cost him his life, and he is seeking to overturn Williams' conviction.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell filed a court motion Friday to vacate the conviction of Williams, 55, who narrowly escaped execution seven years ago for the stabbing death of Lisha Gayle. Gayle, a social worker and one-time St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, was killed at her home in 1998.

“We are confident that any full and fair process will lead to the inevitable conclusion — that Mr. Williams is innocent and his conviction must be overturned,” the Innocence Project, which has worked on Williams’ behalf, said in a statement Monday.

Bell's court filing cites DNA evidence that hasn't been presented in court.

“This never-before-considered evidence, when paired with the relative paucity of other, credible evidence supporting guilt, as well as additional considerations of ineffective assistance of counsel and racial discrimination in jury selection, casts inexorable doubt on Mr. Williams’s conviction and sentence,” the court filing states.

A spokesperson for Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey didn't immediately respond to a phone message or email seeking comment.

Williams was hours from being executed in 2017 when then-Gov. Eric Greitens halted the process and ordered an investigation. Greitens, a Republican, cited new DNA testing that wasn't available at the time of the killing. It showed that DNA found on the knife used to stab Gayle matched an unknown person, not Williams, according to attorneys with the Midwest Innocence Project.

The new court filing from Bell's office notes that three DNA experts examined testing from the knife “and each has independently concluded that Mr. Williams is excluded as the source of the male DNA on the handle of the murder weapon.”

After the execution was stopped, a panel of five judges was appointed to investigate the innocence claim, but after six years, no conclusion was reached. Missouri's current Republican governor, Mike Parson, issued an order in June dissolving the board of inquiry, saying it was time “to move forward.” He also lifted a stay of execution for Williams, but no execution date has been set.

Williams responded by suing Parson in August. The suit states that Greitens' 2017 order required the inquiry board to provide a report and recommendation, but that Parson received neither.

Prosecutors alleged that Williams broke a windowpane to get into Gayle’s home on Aug. 11, 1998, and that he heard the shower running and found a large butcher knife. When Gayle came downstairs, she was stabbed 43 times. Her purse and her husband’s laptop were stolen.

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 previously said there was plenty of evidence to support a conviction. They 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 that 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.

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. A hearing date for Williams has not been set.

That law has led to the release of two men from prison. In 2021, Kevin Strickland was freed after spending more than 40 years behind bars for three killings in Kansas City after a judge ruled that he had been wrongfully convicted in 1979.

Last February, a St. Louis judge overturned the conviction of Lamar Johnson, who spent nearly 28 years in prison for a killing he always said he didn't commit. At a hearing in December 2022, another man testified that it was he — not Johnson — who joined a second man in the killing. A witness testified that police had “bullied” him into implicating Johnson. And Johnson’s girlfriend at the time of the crime testified that they were together that night.