Update: A few hours before Marcellus Williams was due to be executed Missouri Governor Eric Greitens issued a stay of execution.
The execution of Marcellus Williams, scheduled to take place on Tuesday, is one of many examples of racial bias in the American judicial system, according to Staci Pratt, the executive director of human rights organisation Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (MADP).
“This execution is a reflection of practises from a broken system that exhibits racial bias,” says Pratt. “In Missouri, homicides … are seven times more likely to result in the death penalty when the victim is white compared with when the victim is black. If the victim is a white female, execution is 14 times more likely compared with when the victim is a black male. Williams’ case is a perfect example of this racial bias.”
In 2001, Williams was convicted of the 1998 murder of Lisha Gayle, a white former reporter who was murdered in her home in a gated community in St Louis, Missouri. He has always maintained his innocence. With no forensic or eyewitness testimony linking Williams to the murder, the prosecution based its case on the testimonies of two people who later received a financial reward from the victim’s family during a trial where 11 of the 12 jurors were white.
“This case shows several problems endemic to the criminal justice system, especially in St Louis,” Williams’ lawyer Kent Gipson explains. “It has a history of getting African Americans off the jury, especially when there is a white victim,” he adds, explaining that six of the seven potential black jurors were struck off the jury by the prosecution.
For Rod Chapel, the head of the Missouri chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), this case is about more than the life of one man; it is about a flawed and racist justice system.
“Capital punishment in Missouri has serious flaws,” he says. “People of colour are more likely to get sentenced to death. But this is just one step in our concern over the criminal justice system in the state. African Americans are more likely to get stopped by the police, there is over-policing in certain areas without justification, we know that there are prosecutors who withhold evidence from the defence.
“We should be concerned about the quality of our judicial system as a whole. There are still many cases that are percolating through the system where there is a feeling of injustice. There should be justice and equality for all.”
For those involved in it, Williams’ case is especially troubling. According to a new report by a DNA expert, the male DNA on the murder weapon, a knife, did not belong to Williams but to a third, unknown person. Gipson says that new evidence was presented to Missouri’s Supreme Court on August 14, but that less than 24 hours later, the court decided “based on the court files, that the execution should go ahead anyway”.
“For many folks, this case is an example of the system’s inability to respect the lives of people of colour,” says Pratt. “There are recorded cases of confessions that are given after beatings and evidence that has disappeared. And then there is Williams’ case, where there is no evidence that he committed the crime but he’s still on death row.”
“There is no conclusive evidence, the testimonies contradicted each other and the fact that there were almost none of Williams’ peers in the majority white jury shows the brokenness of our system.”
Pratt’s claim of a broken system is supported by research conducted by the University of Columbia, which studied 5,760 capital cases between 1973 and 1995, and found that “more than two out of every three capital judgments reviewed by the courts during the 23-year study period were found to be seriously flawed”.
“If you believe in the system of capital punishment, which personally I do not, you have to believe it should be 100 percent correct all the time,” Pratt says. “And [in] Marcellus Williams’ case, we are about to take the life of an innocent man.”
‘Our goal is to abolish the death penalty completely’
There are currently about 25 people on death row in Missouri, but the attitude towards capital punishment in the state seems to be changing. Since 2013, nobody has been sent to death row. But despite the lack of new death sentences, Missouri has still been one of the deadliest states in the United States.
“In 2015, when I started working for MADP, Missouri had the highest number of executions per capita, even higher than Texas. There was an execution basically every other month, and that is highly disturbing,” Pratt says. “But there has been progress. We have helped with legislation that prevents juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities from being killed. However, our goal is to abolish the death penalty completely.”
Williams’ case has been getting more attention over the last week, after the courts refused to look at the new DNA evidence. One of those paying close attention to it is Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known opponent of the death penalty who came to international fame after she wrote the book Dead Man Walking, which was later made into a film.
“Sister Helen is watching this case closely and she urges [Missouri] Governor Greitens to stop the execution and allow the legal process to play out so that Marcellus Williams has a chance to prove his innocence,” explains Griffin Hardy, a spokesman for Prejean.
Pratt believes that abolishing capital punishment isn’t just morally right, but that it will make life easier for family members of murder victims.
“Death sentences don’t lead to closure for the victims and their families, they say it doesn’t lead to healing,” Pratt says. “Usually, these cases drag on for years because of appeals. That means that these families will have to go through the worst moments of their lives again and again during court procedures.”
And, she says, it can be expensive. “Because of how long these cases drag on, capital cases are much more expensive. A death sentence costs about $1.5m in total with all the appeals, whereas it costs about $400,000 to house a criminal for the rest of his or her life. I’d rather have the money we save spent on making our communities better.”
MADP might have found an unexpected ally in their cause: the new spouse of the husband of Lisha Gayle. In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, she denounced the death penalty, although she hasn’t commented on Williams’ case.
For Williams, time is running out. His execution via lethal injection is scheduled for Tuesday, August 22 at 6pm local time.
Chapel says the NAACP will not stop fighting for Williams’ life. “I haven’t spoken to him personally, but I want to make clear to him that every life is valued. I don’t want him to be some story on television where he is declared innocent after he has been executed,” he says.
Pratt and others opposed to the execution say they also will not give up and will continue to petition Governor Greitens. “We have vigils planned at the prison where Williams will be put to death. This is something we do with every execution,” says Pratt. “We also want to call on people to contact Governor Greitens who can commute the sentence to life without parole.”
A petition on Change.org has almost 135,000 signatures at the time of writing and Chapel says he will present these signatures to the governor on Tuesday, several hours before Williams’ execution is due to take place.
As for Williams, he has turned to religion and tries to keep his family out of all of this, according to his lawyer. “He does not want them there when he is executed. Marcellus is a devout Muslim and he is at peace with all of this. He believes his fate is in Allah’s hands.”
Al Jazeera reached out to the offices of Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and Missouri Governor Eric Greitens but had not received a response by the time of publication.