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New DNA Evidence Cited as Missouri Governor Stays Execution of Prisoner Marcellus Williams

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Missouri Governor Eric Greitens issued a last-minute stay of execution for death row prisoner Marcellus Williams just hours before he was slated to be put to death on Tuesday night. The order came after evidence surfaced showing that the DNA on the murder weapon did not match Williams’s. Williams, who is African-American, was convicted in 2001 of killing a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter, Lisha Gayle, who is white, during a robbery. He was convicted by 11 white jurors and one black juror, after the prosecution was allowed to preemptively strike out six other prospective black jurors. Williams has always maintained his innocence. Amnesty International and other groups are now urging the Missouri governor to grant Marcellus Williams clemency. We speak with Kent Gipson, a criminal defense attorney representing Marcellus Williams.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about another death penalty case earlier this week. The Missouri governor issued a last-minute stay of execution for death row prisoner Marcellus Williams only hours before he was slated to be put to death Tuesday night. The stay of execution came after DNA found on the murder weapon did not match Williams’, but instead matched another man. Williams, who is African-American, was convicted in 2001 of killing a former St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter named Lisha Gayle, who is white, during a robbery. He was convicted by 11 white jurors and one black juror, after the prosecution was allowed to preemptively strike out six other prospective black jurors. Williams has always maintained his innocence. Amnesty International and other groups are now urging Missouri Governor Eric Greitens to grant Marcellus Williams clemency.

For more, we’re going to Kansas City, Missouri, where we’re joined by Kent Gipson, a criminal defense attorney who’s been representing Marcellus Williams for the past 12 years.

Kent Gipson, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what happened this week and the DNA evidence that was finally allowed to be used to weigh in here in Marcellus Williams’ case in a stay of execution.

KENT GIPSON: Well, thank you for having me. I’ve been representing Marcellus for about 12 years now, and we have been trying to get new DNA testing during that entire time. And finally, in 2015, we succeeded in doing that. And through the new technique called touch DNA, a DNA profile was developed on the knife handle. And it matched—it was an unknown male, but it did not match Marcellus Williams’ DNA.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, he has been in jail for what? Seventeen years, about? How come this just came out on the day that he was going to be executed?

KENT GIPSON: Well, we had the results, and we tried to get a stay from the Missouri Supreme Court—who summarily denied it—so we could get a court hearing, because we’ve never gotten a court hearing to have a trial judge or any other judge evaluate whether the DNA is sufficiently exonerating to warrant a new trial. And the case was in the United States Supreme Court, when the governer stayed the execution and appointed a board of inquiry, which he has a right to do under Missouri law, to review the facts and make a recommendation to him as to what he ought to do as far as either commuting the sentence, or he could go so far as to pardon him or, at the very least, order a new trial.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the massive social media campaign that was waged to encourage the governor to give Marcellus Williams a stay of execution?

KENT GIPSON: Yes. Our new governor is a younger guy, and he has changed the way the governor’s office operates. He very rarely speaks to the press. He’s like Donald Trump in some ways. He communicates with the public through Instagram and Twitter and things like that. So, we enlisted Sister Helen Prejean and some other people who are savvy in the social media world. And the last three or four days, before the execution, from what I understand, the governor was being bombarded with responses, texts, phone calls. And there were over 200,000 signatures on an online petition. And I think—given that the governor is very sensitive to social media, I think that really made a difference.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what happens next, Kent Gipson?

KENT GIPSON: At this point, the governor had indicated he’s going to appoint five retired judges to act as a board of inquiry to hear all the evidence in the case and then make a recommendation to him as to what he ought to do. I don’t know how fast that’s going to happen. We’re sort of in uncharted waters. This law has been on the books since the '60s, but it's only been invoked once, and it didn’t involve a claim of innocence. It dealt with a mentally ill inmate back in the '90s. So, we don't know exactly how this is going to proceed, what the—whether we’re going to have a right to appear before them, whether he’ll have a right to counsel. We do know, by statute, that it’s not going to be a public hearing, and the recommendation that they make is not going to be made public, which is a bit of a concern, because we don’t know exactly what the ground rules are going to be for this entire proceeding.

AMY GOODMAN: Your concern about the issue of racial—

KENT GIPSON: But it’s certainly better—

AMY GOODMAN: —racial bias in the original trial, with the 11 white jurors and one black juror? Why was there just one black juror?

KENT GIPSON: Because the prosecution, which has been the habit of the St. Louis County prosecutors, and particularly in death penalty cases involving African-American defendants, they use their preemptory strikes, where they can strike jurors for any reason, to remove blacks from the jury. And in most of the capital cases that have come out of that county in the last 15 or 20 years, most of them have had all-white juries. Marcellus had one black juror, just because they didn’t have enough strikes to get rid of all of them.

But St. Louis County, as everybody may remember, is the same county that we had the Ferguson police shooting incident a couple of years ago, so there’s—there have been racial issues and controversies surrounding the criminal justice system in that county for years. And it sort of came to a head with the Michael Brown shooting. And the prosecutor, Mr. McCulloch, was involved in that and was also—is probably one of the most pro-death penalty prosecutors in the entire state. At a time where the death penalty is waning in popularity and prosecutors aren’t seeking it nearly as often, he’s an exception. He’s never seen a death penalty he didn’t like.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Marcellus Williams, his response to his stay of execution? Did you deliver the news to him?

KENT GIPSON: Yes. Well, I was the second. The other lawyer on the case was actually at the prison, so he told him in person, and then I told him—I talked to him on the phone a little later. And his reaction is how it’s always been: He’s a very calm and very devout Muslim. And he’s basically said all along, “Fight for my life. But whatever happens, it would be God’s will.”

AMY GOODMAN: Maya Foa, I want to end with you. You’re in London, England, as you listen to this. But you’ve taken on these cases in the United States, trying to get execution drugs stopped being used here in this country. Why do you care about what goes on here? And how unusual is the death penalty?

MAYA FOA: Well, it’s interesting you ask that. I’m actually American, so I care as an American citizen, too, but I think this is a really interesting issue. We work on cases around the world. And in America, this myth of the humane lethal injection is deeply troubling to me for a number of different reasons. You know, there’s something about the way in which the design of the cocktail, the medicalization of the death penalty, has allowed it to be sustained in America for far longer than I think otherwise you might have had capital punishment. We don’t have it here in the U.K. And in lots of other countries where they do have capital punishment, they’ve looked at the lethal injection and decided not to go that way, because they’ve seen that it’s not actually a humane way to kill. So I think there’s a very important job to be done in exposing the hypocrisy of that method, where, really, prisoners are being—they are suffering torturous executions, in large part because certain states don’t want to face the reality of what it means to kill people. So that’s one dimension that I think is extremely important.

The other side, of course, is that we’re dealing with manufacturers. We’re in a global society now, and these manufacturers are multinationals. So, back in 2010, when I started looking into this, it was British drugs that were being diverted and used in executions. One of the first executions that I really looked into, there were drugs that had been exported from the U.K., from the back room of a driving school. And these drugs were used to kill a young man whose autopsy photos I later saw. And his eyes were wide open in the autopsy. Now, what that means is that the first drug, the drugs that had come from the driving school, had not worked effectively. So he was awake, conscious, when the second drug was administered, and he was paralyzed. Then, the third drug, this powerful acid that I talked about, that is fire in the veins. That is an unbelievable amount of suffering that he was exposed to. And nobody knew, because the lethal injection disguises that. So, the global nature of the industry means that these different companies and different countries are implicated by what looks to be a very local practice. Over the years, I’ve worked with companies in China, in Pakistan, in India, in Europe, of course. In America, the global—the big giants—Pfizer, McKesson, Johnson & Johnson—these are pharmaceutical companies. Regardless of their political position—they don’t take a political position on capital punishment, but they make medicines to save and improve the lives and health of patients. What states are doing is creating huge disruption to the industry, causing all sorts of problems for these companies, as well as having implications for the other countries where these companies are set. So, for various reasons, I think the death penalty—the U.S. practice of using the lethal injection has made it a global issue. But I would care about it as an American also.

AMY GOODMAN: Maya Foa, I want to thank you for being with us, director of the group Reprieve in London. And, Kent Gipson, criminal defense attorney for Marcellus Williams for the past 12 years, thanks for joining us.

Up next, the White House has drafted a memo on implementing President Trump’s proposed ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military. We’ll find out more. Stay with us.

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