Man on death row whose DNA was not on knife files lawsuit against Missouri governor

A Missouri man on death row has filed a lawsuit against Republican Gov. Mike Parson in an effort to stop the state from carrying out the death penalty.

The lawsuit was filed by Marcellus “Khaliifah” Williams, 54, whose DNA was not found on the knife that killed Felicia Gayle in 1998 in the St. Louis area. Gayle, who had been a reporter with the St. Louis Dispatch, was stabbed 43 times.

“Modern testing proves that Marcellus Williams’s DNA is not on the murder weapon; his shoes did not make the bloody impressions at the crime scene; and the hairs recovered from around Mrs. Gayle’s body did not come from Mr. Williams,” his attorneys wrote in the petition. “Nevertheless, absent judicial intervention, Mr. Williams will be executed for Mrs. Gayle’s murder.”

According to Williams’s attorneys, a board of inquiry responsible for looking into the case has not issued a final recommendation to Parson. They allege he did not have authority to dissolve the board without the recommendation.

“The board of inquiry statute was created so that an independent group of retired judges had an opportunity to review all the evidence in a death penalty case, without any procedural or political obstructions, to make sure an innocent man or woman is not executed. It’s a unique, fail-safe protection,” said Barry C. Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project. “By aborting the process before this distinguished group of jurists issued a report, Gov. Parson violated Mr. Williams’ due process rights under the state and federal constitutions to life and liberty.”

Tricia Rojo Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project, said no judge has ruled on the full evidence of Williams’s innocence.

The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Thursday. Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey said his office “will always unabashedly pursue justice for victims.”

“In this case, that looks like carrying out the lawful sentence and judgment handed down by the Court,” he said in a statement.

The 30-page petition lists four counts alleging Williams’ due process rights were violated when Parson lifted the stay of execution in June.

Williams was scheduled to be executed in 2015, but the Missouri Supreme Court halted his lethal injection, allowing him time to obtain new DNA testing.

DNA testing, conducted in 2016 and using technology that was not available at the time of the killing, shows Williams is not a match for the male DNA found on the murder weapon.

Former Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican, issued another stay of execution in 2017 and appointed the board of inquiry, which was tasked with making a recommendation on the case. Greitens resigned the following year amid several scandals, but the board continued to convene.

On June 29, Parson disbanded the board and removed the stay of execution.

“We could stall and delay for another six years, deferring justice, leaving a victim’s family in limbo, and solving nothing,” the governor said in a statement at the time. “This administration won’t do that. Withdrawing the order allows the process to proceed within the judicial system, and, once the due process of law has been exhausted, everyone will receive certainty.”

The next day, Bailey, a Republican who took office this year, filed a motion requesting the Missouri Supreme Court set an execution date.

Parson denied clemency to four people facing execution this year. Amber McLaughlin was executed in January, Leonard “Raheem” Taylor, who claimed he was innocent, was executed in February, Michael Tisius was executed in June and Johnny Johnson was executed earlier this month. Five states — Missouri, Alabama, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas — have carried out the death penalty this year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.