(CN) – Hours before the Show-Me State was set to execute a man Tuesday for a 1998 murder his attorneys claim he did not commit in light of new DNA evidence, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens stayed the execution with an executive order.
“A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment. To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt. In light of new information, I am appointing a Board of Inquiry in this case,” Grietens, a Republican, said in a statement.
A St. Louis County jury convicted Marcellus Williams, 48, of first-degree murder and first-degree burglary in 2001 for the death of Felicia Anne Gayle, who was stabbed 43 times with a large butcher knife in her home in an upscale gated community in University City, a St. Louis suburb, in August 1998.
Greitens said he will appoint a five-member board of inquiry to investigate the case and make recommendations on whether Williams should be executed. Amnesty International and other death-penalty opponents had urged Greitens to stay the execution.
Williams would have been the second inmate Missouri put to death by lethal injection this year.
Prosecutors said Williams knocked out a window pane and unlocked the home’s front door while Gayle was taking a shower in a second-floor bathroom. They claimed she surprised him when she walked down the stairs and he attacked her with the butcher knife.
Gayle was 42. She was a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter from 1981 to 1992, but had left the paper to do volunteer social work with children and the poor, according to the Post-Dispatch.
Williams’ attorneys say in court filings the murder got a lot of publicity because Gayle had worked for the Post-Dispatch and she was married to Dr. Daniel Pincus, a prominent St. Louis-area physician, who offered a $10,000 reward for information about her death, as investigators struggled to find a suspect for nearly a year.
“Despite the violent and bloody nature of the crime scene, police failed to uncover any forensic evidence connecting petitioner to the murder. In fact, physical evidence collected from the crime scene, including hair and footprints, did not match and could not be linked to petitioner, the victim or her husband, suggesting that the actual killer may still be at large,” Williams’ attorneys say in a petition filed Monday night with Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who hears appeals from the St. Louis-based Eighth Circuit.
Williams’ attorney Kent Gipson says in the petition for review that Williams’ conviction is based on the testimony of Henry Cole, a career criminal with a history of mental illness, and Laura Asaro, an admitted crack-cocaine addict and prostitute, who claims she was dating Williams when Gayle was murdered.
“Both of these witnesses testified at trial that petitioner admitted to them that he had murdered Ms. Gayle. Mr. Williams’ alleged jailhouse confession to Mr. Cole gave a much different account of the crime than his alleged confession to his prostitute girlfriend,” the appeal petition states.
Gipson argues Cole and Asaro snitched on Williams to get the reward money, and Williams’ trial attorneys were blocked from getting information that would have undermined the duo’s credibility.
Dr. Greg Hampikian, a DNA expert and professor at Boise State University, tested DNA from the butcher knife and “male DNA profile developed therefrom conclusively excludes petitioner as the perpetrator of this murder,” according to Williams’ petition.
But a spokesman for Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week that the state has enough circumstantial evidence to convict Williams.
Asaro reportedly told police to search the Buick LeSabre that Williams was driving the day of the crime, and they found Gayle’s calculator and a ruler she had used while working for the Post-Dispatch in it.
Police also recovered Dr. Pincus’ laptop computer from a man who said he bought it from Williams.
The Missouri Constitution gives governors the power to grant pardons and clemency, which would spare Williams’ life. But he will likely spend the rest of his life in prison because the judge who sentenced him to death also imposed consecutive terms of life in prison for robbery, 30 years for burglary and 60 years for weapons violations.
In Williams’ petition for certiorari, Gipson urges the Supreme Court to take on the appeal to consider whether “an even higher standard than beyond a reasonable doubt must be met before the state may constitutionally take a convicted murderer’s life,” citing the “maxim that it is better to allow ten guilty men to go free than to allow one innocent man to be convicted.”
The Supreme Court must step in to ensure states don’t commit the ultimate due process violation of executing factually innocent people, Gipson argues in the petition.
“This Court’s discretionary intervention is necessary not only to save an innocent man’s life, but to address this important issue that will undoubtedly recur in future cases,” the attorney wrote.