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Missouri Supreme Court says governor had the right to dissolve inquiry board in death row case

The Missouri Supreme Court on Tuesday denied a death row inmate’s challenge to Gov. Mike Parson’s decision to dissolve a board of inquiry convened to investigate the inmate’s innocence claim.

Marcellus Williams filed suit last year after Parson, a Republican, did away with the inquiry board convened by his predecessor six years earlier. The board never decided if Williams was guilty or innocent.

Williams, 55, was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1998 death of Lisha Gayle during a robbery of her suburban St. Louis home. He was hours away from execution in August 2017 when then-Gov. Eric Greitens, also a Republican, halted the process and ordered an investigation.

Greitens’ decision followed the release of new DNA testing unavailable at the time of the killing. It showed that DNA found on the knife used to stab Gayle matched an unknown person, not Williams, attorneys for Williams have said. Greitens appointed a panel of five judges to investigate.

The panel never reached a conclusion. Parson dissolved the board in June 2023, saying it was time to “move forward” on the case.

Williams’ lawsuit contended that Greitens’ order required the inquiry board to provide a report and recommendation — but Parson received neither.

The state Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling stated that the “Missouri Constitution vests the governor with exclusive constitutional authority to grant or deny clemency and Williams has no statutory or due process right to the board of inquiry process.”

A statement from the Midwest Innocence Project, which filed suit on behalf of Williams, called the ruling a disappointment.

Parson’s spokesman, Johnathan Shiflett, said the governor’s authority “was clear, as affirmed by the Supreme Court of Missouri today.”

While the board of inquiry won’t reconvene, Williams is expected to get a court hearing on the innocence claim.

St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell filed in motion in January to vacate the murder conviction. Bell cited the new DNA evidence and said at the time that he now believes Williams was not involved in Gayle’s death. A hearing date has not been set.

“This injustice can still be righted,” the statement from attorney Tricia Rojo Bushnell of the Midwest Innocence Project said.

Prosecutors said Williams broke a window pane to get inside Gayle’s home on Aug. 11, 1998, heard water running in the shower, and found a large butcher knife. When Gayle came downstairs, she was stabbed 43 times. Her purse and her husband’s laptop were stolen. Gayle was a social worker who previously worked as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Authorities said Williams stole a jacket to conceal blood on his shirt. Williams’ girlfriend asked him why he would wear a jacket on such a hot day. The girlfriend said she later saw the laptop in the car and that Williams sold it a day or two later.

Prosecutors also cited testimony from Henry Cole, who shared a St. Louis cell with Williams in 1999 while Williams was jailed on unrelated charges. Cole told prosecutors Williams confessed to the killing and offered details about it.

Williams’ attorneys responded that the girlfriend and Cole were both convicted felons out for a $10,000 reward.

Jim Salter, The Associated Press

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