December 01, 2017

In Rare Use of Clemency Power, Missouri Governor Stays Execution, Appoints Board of Inquiry

On August 22, 2017, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens issued a reprieve to Marcellus Williams only a few hours before Mr. Williams was to be executed for the 1998 murder of a former newspaper reporter, Felicia Gayle. Governor Greitens simultaneously took the rare step of exercising his clemency power under the state constitution to appoint a Gubernatorial Board of Inquiry to consider Mr. Williams’ innocence claims and clemency request.

Mr. Williams was convicted and sentenced to death in 2001. His conviction relied heavily on testimony from two jailhouse informants and the fact that certain items belonging to Ms. Gayle were found in a car driven by Mr. Williams nearly a year after her death. Mr. Williams’ lawyers pointed out that the car where these items were found did not belong to Mr. Williams and argued that he had no knowledge that the stolen goods were there. Police found no DNA or other physical evidence linking Mr. Williams to the crime scene, and in 2015, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a last-minute stay of execution to allow Mr. Williams to pursue DNA testing.

The testing revealed the presence of DNA on the knife used to stab Ms. Gayle that came from neither Mr. Williams nor the victim, lending support to Mr. Williams’ innocence claims. Despite this new evidence, however, the Missouri Supreme Court denied Mr. Williams’ subsequent motion for an evidentiary hearing. Following the revelation of the potentially exculpatory DNA results, groups such as the Innocence Project began advocating to Governor Greitens for clemency on Mr. Williams’ behalf.

In Missouri, as a part of the governor’s constitutional power to grant pardons and executive clemency, state law also gives the governor exclusive discretion to appoint a Board of Inquiry to gather information and make a report as to whether a person condemned to death should be executed. Despite Missouri’s high number of executions in the last decade, until now this aspect of the clemency power has been used only sparingly. Mel Carnahan was the last governor to commission a Board of Inquiry, doing so twice during the 1990s.

The five members of the Board of Inquiry appointed by Governor Greitens will include retired Missouri judges who will have subpoena power pursuant to state law. At the end of its work, the Board will report to the governor and make a recommendation about Mr. Williams’ clemency application. The executive order appointing a Board of Inquiry can be found at http://on.mo.gov/2vVU6Hj.