On Wednesday, July 3rd, the 200th death row exoneration was announced. But an unknown number of prisoners with compelling innocence claims remain on death row, unable to secure relief either because they lack access to competent legal representation for their appeals, are barred from accessing the courts because of procedural legal barriers, or due to the incalcitrance of elected officials. For some of these prisoners, execution dates have been set. Significant developments have occurred recently in three cases with strong innocence claims: Marcellus Williams in Missouri, Robert Roberson in Texas, and Rodney Reed in Texas.  

Marcellus Williams, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of Felicia Gayle in St. Louis, Missouri, is scheduled to be executed in September 2024, despite DNA evidence that excludes him from possible perpetrators. Mr. Williams’ trial court, at the request of St. Louis County Prosecutor (DA) Wesley Bell, has set an evidentiary hearing for August 21, 2024 to review his claims that he is innocent and should not be executed. In January 2024, DA Bell filed a motion to vacate Mr. Williams’ conviction after his office reviewed the case and determined there is “clear and convincing evidence” of Mr. Williams’ innocence. DA Bell noted that Mr. Williams’ DNA was not found on the murder weapon, and other evidence testing has further excluded him from possible contributors. 

In Texas, Robert Roberson remains on death row for causing the death of his daughter based on “Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS).” On July 1, a Texas court set an execution date of October 17, 2024 for Mr. Roberson, despite new scientific and medical evidence debunking the theory of SBS. Mr. Roberson has maintained his innocence in the death of his daughter Nikki, who had “severe, undiagnosed” pneumonia at the time of her death, which caused her to stop breathing. Instead of doctors diagnosing Nikki with pneumonia, they prescribed her drugs that are no longer given to young children because they have been found to suppress breathing even further. Mr. Roberson’s attorneys allege that Nikki’s death “was a tragic, untimely death of a sick child whose impaired, impoverished father did not know how to explain what has confounded the medical community for decades.” 

Despite new scientific evidence supporting the theory that Nikki was not the victim of child abuse, in 2023, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (TCCA) denied Mr. Roberson a new trial. At the time, prosecutors argued that the evidence supporting Mr. Roberson’s conviction was “clear and convincing” and that the science surrounding SBS has not changed to the degree defense attorneys allege.

On July 2, 2024, the United States Supreme Court rejected the request of Rodney Reed, another Texas death row prisoner who has maintained his innocence, to review his claim that prosecutors, during his 1998 capital trial, illegally suppressed evidence favorable to his defense. In rejecting Mr. Reed’s request, the Court has allowed the TCCA’s decision denying him a new trial to stand. While Mr. Reed will not be granted a new trial because of prosecutorial misconduct, the Supreme Court ruled in April 2024 that his request for further DNA testing of evidence could be considered. Attorneys for Mr. Reed believe that DNA testing of crime scene evidence will identify another individual as the perpetrator of the murder. Following the “very shocking and very disappointing” decision from the Court, Sandra Reed, Mr. Reed’s mother, said that “we the Reed family remain optimistic, and we will continue to fight.”