Marcellus Williams Has a Strong Case for Innocence. He's Still on Death Row

DNA analysis has revealed many wrongful convictions. A Missouri death-row inmate says he's one

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Race and Unreason

Williams' lawyers and supporters have highlighted aspects of racial bias in his case. Historically, Black defendants are much more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants, especially if the victim was white, as Gayle was.

Williams' jury consisted of 11 whites and just one Black person. This was, of course, no accident. The pool of possible jurors included seven African Americans. Prosecutors struck all but one.

In their appeal, Gipson and Komp noted the bizarre rationale behind the prosecutor's strike of a potential Black juror named Henry Gooden. Since it's illegal to remove jurors on the basis of race, prosecutors offered other reasons (see "How Missouri Prosecutors Get Away With Striking Black Jurors"). They asserted that Gooden was struck because he wore clothes that resembled Williams' attire and he worked at the post office. According to the prosecutor's rationale, postal workers have "liberal, political views" and are inherently anti-death penalty.

In response, Williams' lawyers insisted Gooden bore no resemblance to Williams, other than his skin color; that other (white) jurors who wore clothing similar to Gooden's were not struck; that "another postal worker who was Caucasian was not stricken by the State and that Mr. Gooden was unequivocal in stating that he could impose a death sentence."

The trial court judge ruled that prosecutors had the right to "peremptory strikes based on their hunches" and their reasoning was "race neutral and not of pretextual nature."

Under the current legal standard in the U.S., prosecutors don't need to show that an explanation is plausible — only that it might be valid. The appellate court let the strike stand.

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The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, states that the "color of a defendant and victim's skin plays a crucial and unacceptable role in deciding who receives the death penalty in America." According to the ACLU, "People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 percent of total executions since 1976 and 55 percent of those currently awaiting execution."

Data from the National Registry of Exonerations also show that innocent Black people are about seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than innocent white people. Additionally, the agency notes, African American prisoners who are convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers.

According to the registry, "Many of the convictions of African American murder exonerees were affected by a wide range of types of racial discrimination, from unconscious bias and institutional discrimination to explicit racism."

At a 2018 press conference in support of Williams, Cassandra Gould, a Jefferson City pastor and executive director of Missouri Faith Voices, expressed the need to examine how race and injustice are intertwined with the death penalty in the U.S.

"There are countless pools of blood that have been crying out from the ground all over America and especially in Missouri, from particularly innocent Black men who are so easily convicted and so easily sentenced to death," Gould said.

* * *

Despite new evidence, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that Williams' execution should proceed. Gipson told the Post-Dispatch that the court's move was unprecedented.

"We petitioned the court to look at the new evidence ... and less than 24 hours later they decided based on the court files that the execution should go ahead anyway."

Williams was given a new execution date in 2017.

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