On January 26, 2024, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell filed a motion in the St. Louis County Circuit Court, asking the Court to vacate Marcellus Williams’ death sentence. 

Mr. Williams was sentenced to death in 2001 for the 1998 killing of local newspaper reporter, Felicia Gayle, but has maintained his innocence throughout his incarceration. No physical evidence tied Mr. Williams to the crime and the trial court judge refused to allow DNA testing of some of the evidence collected from the crime scene. In 2015, Mr. Williams was eventually given permission for DNA testing of the murder weapon, which revealed a male DNA profile inconsistent with that of Mr. Williams. Following the rules of a 2021 Missouri law that grants prosecutors the authority to intervene in cases when there is “information that the convicted person may be innocent,” Mr. Bell filed his motion to vacate Mr. Williams’ sentence. In his motion, Mr. Bell noted that “this never-before-considered evidence, when paired with the relative paucity of other, credible evidence supporting guilt, as well as additional considerations of ineffective assistance of counsel and racial discrimination in jury selection, casts inexorable doubt on Mr. Williams’s conviction and sentence.” Mr. Bell has asked the Court to schedule a hearing to consider the DNA evidence and other evidential flaws in the state’s case against Mr. Williams. 

Mr. Bell’s office continues combing through the police investigation of Ms. Gayle’s death to determine whether the investigation was “intentionally or recklessly deficient” and is looking into an “alternate perpetrator.” The motion also notes that Mr. Bell believes it is his job to ask the Court to “correct this manifest injustice by seeking a hearing on the newfound evidence and the integrity of Mr. Williams’ conviction.”  

 This motion was filed shortly after the Missouri Attorney General, Andrew Bailey, asked the Missouri Supreme Court to set an execution date for Mr. Williams. Attorneys for Mr. Williams, working for the Innocence Project, said that they “are confident that any full and fair process will head to the inevitable conclusion – that Mr. Williams is innocent and his conviction must be overturned.” 

St. Louis Police suspected Ms. Gayle’s murder was a robbery gone wrong and the crime scene details matched those of a crime that occurred just weeks earlier. Law enforcement identified a “prime suspect,” but no arrests were made until a monetary reward was offered. Thereafter, a jailhouse informant, Henry Cole, told police a story about how Marcellus Williams, a former cellmate of his, confessed to killing Ms. Gayle. Police later secured another informant, Mr. Williams’ former girlfriend, Laura Asaro, who told police that Mr. Williams killed Ms. Gayle. Both Mr. Cole and Ms. Asaro were facing unrelated criminal charges and stood to benefit from testifying for the state.  

The prosecution relied heavily on testimony from both Mr. Cole and Ms. Asaro, which shifted throughout the course of their questioning. Their testimony also contradicted the physical evidence collected from the crime scene. Ms. Asaro claimed Mr. Williams had scratches on his face the day following the murder, but no foreign DNA was discovered under Ms. Gayle’s fingernails. Additionally, bloody shoeprints at the crime scene were a different size than Mr. Williams’ feet and the fingerprints lifted were unusable and never given to the defense to analyze before they were destroyed. 

Despite the DNA testing in 2015, the Court refused to allow Mr. Williams to enter the newly discovered evidence during post-conviction proceedings and scheduled an execution for August 2017. The Midwest Innocence Project, which represents Mr. Williams, asked then-Governor Eric Greitens to halt the execution. Gov. Greitens issued an executive order staying Mr. Williams’ execution and empaneling a five-member board of former judges to “assess the credibility and weight of all the evidence.” Per Missouri law, the board is required to produce a final report for to the governor “as to whether or not [Mr.] Williams should be executed, or his sentence of death commuted.” In June 2023, however, Governor Mike Parson dissolved the board of inquiry before a report was released. Attorneys for Mr. Williams immediately challenged the governor’s attempt to disband the board. 

In his motion to the Court, Mr. Bell alleges that Mr. Williams’ trial attorneys provided ineffective assistance of counsel by failing to call witnesses to impeach the credibility of Mr. Cole and Ms. Asaro. Mr. Williams’ conviction was also the result of prosecutorial misconduct, as prosecutors illegally struck several Black jurors from service. During jury selection, the prosecution said they did not reject a Black juror because of his race, but rather because he “looked very similar” to Mr. Williams. The prosecutor also claimed he struck the juror because he worked for the postal system and postal employees tend to be “very liberal,” yet he did not strike a white postal employee. The prosecution team responsible for handling Mr. Williams’ conviction has been involved in at least two other death penalty convictions that have been reversed by the Missouri Supreme Court 


Jim Salter, Missouri pros­e­cu­tor seeks to over­turn the con­vic­tion of an inmate who has spent decades on death row, Associated Press, January 19, 2024; Jordan Smith, St. Louis County Prosecutor Seeks to Vacate Death Penalty Conviction of Marcellus Williams, The Intercept, January 292024

See Prosecuting Attorney Bell’s Motion to Vacate or Set Aside Judgment and Suggestions in Support, here