CHICAGO (AFP) - With only hours to spare, the governor of the US state of Missouri on Tuesday (Aug 22) halted the execution of a man whose lawyers argued new DNA evidence exonerated him of a 1998 murder.
Governor Eric Greitens stayed the execution of Marcellus Williams, 48, who was convicted of fatally stabbing a woman more than 40 times during a robbery at her home in the Midwestern state.
Williams was scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Tuesday, but the governor ordered the formation of an investigative panel to reconsider the facts of the case.
"To carry out the death penalty, the people of Missouri must have confidence in the judgment of guilt," Greitens said.
The governor planned to appoint a five-member board of inquiry that would include retired judges, who would have subpoena power to re-examine witnesses and evidence.
Williams' attorney claimed new testing of the knife used to commit the murder found another person's DNA on the weapon but none of Williams' DNA. The DNA testing was not available during the time of the original trial.
"The new DNA technology called touch DNA has developed a male genetic profile on the knife handle, that was the murder weapon, that does not match Marcellus Williams', so that we believe that totally exonerates him of the murder," attorney Kent Gipson told AFP.
State prosecutors contend there is enough other evidence to assure Williams' guilt, including the victim's personal items recovered from the condemned man's car.
The initial trial also relied on testimony from two witnesses, Williams' former girlfriend and a cell mate, who both said the convict admitted to the murder. Prosecutors say the cell mate knew details of the crime that were not made public.
Only hours before the governor's stay, the state attorney general's office insisted that they were confident of Williams' guilt "based on the other, non-DNA, evidence in this case." In court filings during an earlier appeal, prosecutors dismissed the new DNA evidence, saying "it would be unsurprising" that other people's DNA would be on the kitchen knife used for the murder.
"It would not have been unreasonable for (Williams) to wear gloves during the burglary and subsequent murder," prosecutors wrote in explaining why his DNA was not on the knife.
Gipson appealed to the US Supreme Court Monday night, asking for a stay. The state's supreme court last week denied a similar request.
RACE A FACTOR?
Death penalty opponents had rallied to Williams' cause, sending a petition with more than 187,000 signatures to the governor. They claimed race was a factor in the African American man's conviction.
"African American men like Marcellus are arrested and convicted at significantly higher rates than any other ethnic group," the group Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty wrote in an online petition.
Reconsideration of a death penalty case due to DNA evidence is rare. Most death sentences that are reversed are due to findings of prosecutorial or police misconduct, said Robert Dunham of the watchdog group Death Penalty Information Center.
"Very often what you'll see is a prosecutor or police deciding they'd gotten the right guy, and ignoring the leads that would have taken them to somebody else as a possible suspect," Dunham told AFP.
"Governor Greitens did the right thing. Executing Marcellus Williams without meaningfully considering his evidence of innocence would have been intolerable and indefensible," he said.