Hours before convicted killer Marcellus Williams was scheduled to die by lethal injection, Missouri's governor has halted his execution. His attorneys argued that recent DNA evidence shows he is innocent in the killing of a former newspaper reporter. (Reuters)

Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens (R) on Tuesday stayed the scheduled execution of Marcellus Williams, just hours before the death-row inmate was set to be put to death for the 1998 killing of a former newspaper reporter.

Williams’s looming lethal injection prompted scrutiny and a last-ditch appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court from his attorneys, who pointed to new DNA evidence in arguing that Missouri may have been on the verge of executing the wrong person.

Greitens said he would appoint a board to look into the new DNA evidence and other factors before issuing a report about whether or not Williams should be granted clemency.

“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.”

Williams, 48, was convicted in 2001 of brutally killing Felicia “Lisha” Gayle, who had been a reporter with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Gayle was in her home when she was stabbed 43 times with a butcher knife, according to court records.

Williams was scheduled to be executed in 2015 for the high-profile killing, but the state Supreme Court stayed his lethal injection, allowing him time to obtain the new DNA testing.

Attorneys for Williams have argued he is innocent, pointing to DNA tests they say produced “conclusive scientific evidence that another man committed this crime.” They say this evidence shows that DNA belonging to someone else was found on the murder weapon, exonerating Williams.

“They’re never going to ever confront an actual innocence cause more persuading than this involving exonerating DNA evidence,” said Kent Gipson, one of Williams’s attorneys. “I’ve seen a lot of miscarriages of justice, but this one would take the cake.”

State officials, though, said they still believed Williams is guilty because of other “compelling non-DNA evidence.”

In court filings, the office of Joshua D. Hawley, Missouri’s attorney general, listed some of these other factors, describing two people — a man who served time with Williams and Williams’s girlfriend — who both told police that he confessed to the killing. Williams had also sold a laptop stolen from Gayle’s home, Hawley’s office wrote in the filings, and items belonging to Gayle were found in a car Williams drove the day she was killed.

“Based on the other, non-DNA, evidence in this case, our office is confident in Marcellus Williams’ guilt and plans to move forward,” Loree Anne Paradise, Hawley’s deputy chief of staff, wrote in an email Tuesday.

After Williams’s execution was stayed, Paradise said her office was still confident in what the jury determined in 2001.

“We remain confident in the judgment of the jury and the many courts that have carefully reviewed Mr. Williams’ case over sixteen years,” she wrote Tuesday afternoon. “We applaud the work of the numerous law enforcement officers who have dedicated their time and effort to pursuing justice in this case.”

Attorneys for Williams and state officials had both made their arguments to Supreme Court Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who is assigned cases from the federal circuit covering Missouri. Neither Gorsuch nor the full court had publicly weighed in before Greitens halted the scheduled execution.

A little more than four hours before Williams was set to be executed, Greitens signed an executive order halting the lethal injection. Greitens also appointed a board of inquiry to further consider Williams’s clemency request and issue a report about whether he should be executed or have his sentence commuted.

In his statement, Greitens said he was appointing the board “in light of new information.” According to Greitens’s executive order, the board will consider “newly discovered DNA evidence” as well as “any other relevant evidence not available to the jury.”

The controversy surrounding Williams’s scheduled lethal injection had drawn unusual attention to what would be a relatively rare execution in the United States, where the death penalty has been declining for years.

There have been 16 people executed so far this year in the United States, one of them in Missouri, which is among a handful of states still regularly executing inmates. Last year, there were 20 executions in the United States, the fewest in 25 years. That number is expected to increase slightly this year, but 2017 will still see one of the lowest annual number of executions than most years since 1990.

Death sentences have become less common nationwide, dropping from 315 such sentences in 1996 to 31 last year, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based group that tracks capital punishment. Public support for the death penalty has also fallen over the same period. In a Pew Research Center survey last year, American support for capital punishment fell below 50 percent for the first time since Richard Nixon was president. A Gallup poll, also conducted last year, found support remained at 60 percent. In both cases, the numbers represented a sharp drop from the mid-1990s, when 4 in 5 Americans backed the death penalty.

While some states have abandoned capital punishment or been unable to carry out executions amid an ongoing drug shortage, Missouri has been an outlier. Missouri is one of three states, along with Texas and Georgia, to execute at least one inmate each year since 2013.

In 2015, when Missouri last intended to execute Williams, the state’s Supreme Court stayed the lethal injection. A laboratory tested evidence from the scene of Gayle’s killing and a DNA expert determined that Williams “could not have contributed” to the DNA found on the knife that killed the former reporter, Williams’s attorneys said. Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court rejected a request to stay Williams’s execution without explanation.

Missouri officials had argued in court that in order to exonerate Williams, “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 said that just showing “unknown DNA” on the knife handle does not alone prove Williams’s innocence.

“The item was a kitchen knife with both male and female DNA on the handle,” Hawley’s office wrote in a filing to the Supreme Court. “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.”

Gipson argued that the case against Williams was always weak, consisting primarily of the statements of two jailhouse informants who claimed Williams had confessed to the crime. Gipson also said that bloody footprints at the scene did not match Williams’s shoe size and added that bloody fingerprints were never tested or compared to Williams’s fingerprints because they were lost by police.

The DNA testing, which Williams’s attorneys said was enabled by advances in technology, formed the main argument they made in appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“A DNA profile was developed from the handle of the knife that was found in the victim’s body and that does not match the DNA of Marcellus,” Gipson said Tuesday, adding that three separate experts have concluded that the DNA left on the knife and at the scene was a match for another man and not Williams. “It’s clear that the DNA on the knife is the DNA of the killer. … Each expert has concluded that you can scientifically exclude Marcellus as the contributor of the DNA on the knife.”

Civil rights groups also weighed in on the case, both due to Williams’s claims of innocence as well as racial undertones in the prosecution of a black man charged with killing a white woman.

“The Supreme Court has emphasized over and over that because death is a unique punishment there is need for heightened reliability before it’s imposed,” said Sam Spital, director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is not directly involved in Williams’s case. “One of the really significant questions raised by Mr. Williams’s case is, what does it mean when you have issues of innocence?”

Like Williams’s attorneys, Spital noted the lack of forensic evidence linking Williams to the crime as well as the new DNA evidence. Spital also pointed to another concern, echoing attorneys for Williams, who described the case as racially charged. Spital said six of the seven potential black jurors in the case were struck from the jury pool — in one case because the potential juror “looked like” Williams.

“This execution has to be stayed so these substantial questions of innocence can be considered, in addition to some real concerns about race discrimination,” Spital said before the governor had issued the stay.

This story has been updated since it was first published.

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