Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R.) issued a stay of execution on Tuesday just hours before a man convicted of murder whose lawyers say he is exonerated by new DNA evidence was scheduled to be executed.
Marcellus Williams, 48, was set to be executed at 7 p.m. Tuesday evening for killing St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Felicia Gayle in her home in 1998, CNN reports. Williams was convicted of stabbing Gayle 43 times, then stealing a number of her personal items, including a laptop that he subsequently sold.
"A sentence of death is the ultimate, permanent punishment," Greitens said in a statement. "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."
Greitens' stay was prompted by the claim of Williams' lawyers that new DNA evidence shows Williams' DNA was not on the knife used in the stabbing.
"They're never going to ever confront an actual innocence cause more persuading than this involving exonerating DNA evidence," said Kent Gipson, one of the attorneys. "I've seen a lot of miscarriages of justice, but this one would take the cake."
Missouri prosecutors remain unconvinced, arguing in court that "DNA evidence would have to explain how Williams ended up with the victim's property, and why two witnesses independently said he confessed to them, or at least provide a viable alternate suspect." They also rejected the claim that showing "unknown DNA" proved Williams' innocence.
"The item was a kitchen knife with both male and female DNA on the handle," read a filing from the Missouri Attorney General's office. "It is reasonable to assume people not involved in the murder handled the knife in the kitchen. And there is no reason to believe Williams would not have worn gloves during a burglary and murder, as he wore a jacket to conceal his bloody shirt after he left the murder scene."
Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court denied Williams' appeal for a stay of execution pending examination of the new evidence, providing no justification for doing so. Williams' lawyers and the state of Missouri are in the process of appealing that ruling before U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, who is responsible for such appeals from Missouri.
In the meantime, Greitens' executive order has paused Williams' execution, and organized a Board of Inquiry, which will investigate the evidence and make a recommendation to Greitens as to whether Williams' sentence should be commuted.