Marcellus S. Williams: Saved from execution with mere hours to spare

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This story is the eighteenth in a series, Unrequited Innocence, that looks at cases where people were sentenced to die and have not been exonerated despite significant evidence of innocence.

A suburban St. Louis doctor came home one August night in 1998 to find the lifeless body of his wife who had been stabbed 43 times by a butcher knife.

The murder of Felicia Gayle, a former reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, went unsolved for more than a year before the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney announced that a laptop computer and other items taken in a burglary of the home led them to a burglar and armed robber named Marcellus S. Williams. The Post-Dispatch reported that two informants had given authorities information as well.

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Unrequited Innocence

The 2001 trial was racially charged, involving a black defendant and white victim. Prosecutors struck six of seven qualified black candidates from the panel, creating a jury of one black and 11 white jurors. Eleven days later, the jury convicted Williams of first-degree murder, burglary, robbery and armed criminal action. In August, 2001, Williams was sentenced to die.

No physical evidence from the crime scene pointed to Williams. Hairs taken from Gayle’s shirt and from a recently cleaned rug on which her body was found had not come from Williams, Gayle or her husband. Blood and skin recovered from Gayle’s fingernails had not come from Williams. Bloody footprints at the scene did not match the shoe size of Williams or first responders.

Marcellus Williams

Missouri Department of Corrections

Marcellus Williams

The University City police found Gayle’s ruler and calculator in the trunk of the car Williams was said to have been driving.

The prosecution relied heavily on three witnesses, but there were issues with each.

Williams’s former girlfriend, Laura Asaro, testified that Williams had admitted the crime to her and that she saw a purse containing Gayle’s state identification card in the trunk of the car Williams was said to have used in the crime. The ID, however, was found in Gayle’s home. Asaro, a crack cocaine addict and prostitute, agreed to testify in exchange for the dismissal of outstanding warrants against her.

A second witness, Henry Cole, was a jailhouse informant who claimed that Williams had also confessed to him, while they were in custody together.

Asaro and Cole, a career criminal with a history of mental illness, stood to share a $10,000 reward offered by Gayle’s family.

The third witness, Glenn Roberts, testified that Williams sold him a laptop computer taken in the burglary. Roberts would have added that Williams said he was selling the computer for Asaro, but the trial judge would not let the jury hear that part — ruling it was hearsay.

The jury deliberated less than two hours before finding Williams guilty, and debated for 90 minutes before recommending the death sentence, which was upheld on appeal.

In his post-conviction motion, Williams challenged both the conviction and the sentence. He contended that Asaro or the police could have planted the ruler and calculator found in his car, and that the car was inoperable at the time of the murder, as his brother had testified.

In 2010 a U.S. district court judge rejected Williams’ claims of innocence, but vacated his death sentence on the ground that his trial counsel had failed to investigate and present potentially mitigating evidence: Williams had suffered physical and sexual abuse as a child, his family condoned criminal behavior and he had been exposed to guns, drugs and alcohol at a young age. If these facts were known to Williams’s jury, the judge ruled, they would have established “a reasonable probability that the outcome of the penalty phase would have been different.”

But the U.S. Court of Appeals reinstated Williams’s death sentence in 2012, saying that evidence of childhood abuse would have undermined the defense’s portrayal of Williams as a “family man, who is innocent of such a violent murder.” Williams, the appellate court said, “cannot now plead ineffective assistance alleging that a different strategy would have worked better.”

Williams has since been facing execution. He managed to win a stay for a January, 2015 execution date, to win time for additional DNA testing of the murder weapon. Those tests conclusively excluded Williams as the source of the DNA. Despite the revelation, Williams has failed to win further support from the courts.

He was given a new execution date of 2017, but the execution was stayed just hours before it was to be carried out by Gov. Eric Greitens to permit further investigation of the DNA evidence by a board of retired judges. Before the board began its inquiry, Greitens indicated he was open to granting clemency based on the board’s decision.

Greitens abruptly resigned on May 29, 2018 in the wake of a scandal involving campaign finances and an extra-marital affair. Though the judges heard arguments about the DNA evidence in August 2018, Williams remains on death row.